In the biggest showdown yet between San Diego's City Council and the “strong mayor,” the council Monday failed to overturn Mayor Bob Filner’s veto of two council-picked appointees to the Port of San Diego's board of port commissioners.
A 5-3 majority, led by Council President Todd Gloria, voted to reject the veto, but that was not strong enough for the two-thirds majority needed for an override.
The move likely means the city will have only one vote on the commission during the next several months, as the Port drafts its budget and evaluates plans for an expanded Convention Center and other major projects.
“There’s a saying that if you’re not at the table, you’ll be on the menu,” Gloria said. “And I’m afraid that if we’re not at [the Port Commission’s] table, our needs will not be well met.”
But Council President Pro Tem Sherri Lightner, who supported Filner's veto, argued that the council needed to slow down its selection process “to ensure that we’re choosing people properly.” And Councilmember Marti Emerald argued that before naming appointees to outside boards, the council should set specific criteria for what it expects out of the appointees.
The showdown has been brewing since Jan. 7, when the City Council went through four rounds of voting on six candidates before settling on the two nominees: local attorney Rafael Castellanos, president of the San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association; and businessman Marshall Merrifield, a former adviser to Mayor Jerry Sanders.
Gloria helped broker the compromise that allowed the politically divided but officially nonpartisan council to name a Republican, Merrifield, and a Democrat, Castellanos.
But the voting left several councilmembers feeling bitter.
Councilmember David Alvarez, who nominated Castellanos, argued that the process for nominating board members has been “rigged.” He said there is no firmly established way of nominating a port commissioner, so the past three sets of nominees have been picked using three different methods.
During the vote on the port commissioners, Alvarez said, “the rules were being changed right until the time the votes were counted.” Lightner agreed, saying the rules differed with each vote count.
Alvarez abstained from the final vote because he did not like the process.
Less than two weeks later, Filner vetoed the choices, arguing that before making such appointments, the council should set clear standards for how the nominees are chosen, what qualifications they should have and what policies they will be expected to pursue at the port.
Filner also complained about the process used to select the nominees, saying that it often seems to be a “popularity contest” among a relatively small group of insiders rather than having a firm set of rules.
But Councilmember Lori Zapf said the process was fair and did not taint the legitimacy of the appointments.
“I believe we should let the appointments stand, because we’ve got two terrific candidates,” she said.
And Scott Sherman said the dispute was “purely about partisan politics” rather than whether the two candidates were qualified to sit on the board.
“I haven’t heard anybody all day questioning their qualifications,” Sherman said. “We cannot sacrifice our voice on the port while we’re writing up a draft of qualifications.”
Merrifield, who sat quietly in the audience during Monday's debate, said he was disappointed by the outcome.
“This whole talk about the process is something that they’ll have to sort out, but for me it’s hard to understand, since it seemed like a pretty rigorous process to me,” he said. “I’m certainly hopeful they’ll figure out how to proceed.”
Until the two seats are filled, San Diego will be represented by Bob Nelson, a former chair of the San Diego Convention Center board. The commission includes one appointee each from San Ysidro, Chula Vista, National City and Imperial Beach, but San Diego gets three seats because of its size.