Amid Recall Push, San Diego Mayor Bob Filner Negotiates Next Steps

Residents and officials eye ways to oust the mayor who has turned the city into a punch line

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Mayor Bob Filner, at a press conference in San Diego on July 26, 2013, announces his intention to seek professional help following sexual-harassment allegations.

More than a month after being accused of sexual harassment and days after leaving treatment meant to address his alleged misconduct, San Diego Mayor Bob Filner still won’t go. But that may be changing soon.

Since early July, 16 women have accused the first-term Democrat of inappropriate behavior. The first was his former communications director, who filed a sexual-harassment lawsuit against him and the city through prominent women’s-rights attorney Gloria Allred. Then came a school psychologist, a Navy rear admiral and a great-grandmother. The sheriff created a hotline to field allegations, while a steady stream of critics, from local politicians to Nancy Pelosi, called on him to resign. The Democratic National Committee joined the chorus Tuesday when it revealed plans to vote on a resolution asking the former Congressman to step down.

(MORE: The Mayor Who Won’t Let Go)

So far, the mayor has been firm in resisting those calls. After citizens of San Diego declared their intention to circulate a recall petition, he responded without a hint of capitulation. “As your mayor,” he wrote in a statement released by his lawyers, “I am committed to moving San Diego forward!” Filner might change his tune if his lawyers, who have been in closed-door mediation sessions with Allred and city officials, broker a deal that makes stepping down look like the most appealing option.

“Filner is a tough, shrewd bargainer,” says Steve Erie, a political-science professor at the University of California, San Diego. “And he has the one thing everybody wants.” Erie believes that the mayor might be willing to leave his office if the city indemnifies him against charges of sexual misconduct.

Filner’s exit would lift a humiliating cloud that has been hovering over the usually sunny coastal city since the allegations surfaced. After seeing the mayor lampooned on late-night shows and in spoof music videos, many residents have had their fill of the spotlight. “People are definitely frustrated,” says Katie Keach, an aide to city-council president Todd Gloria, an official involved in the mediation talks who has called for Filner to step down. “They want it to go away.” Erie describes the mood in the nation’s eighth largest city with starker terms: “There is a lynch-mob mentality in this town.”

(MORE: What the San Diego Mayor Will Do at Sex-Harassment Rehab)

A resignation would be a far simpler and quicker way to resolve things than a recall election. An official recall effort began with a rally on Sunday, and organizers have until Sept. 26 to gather nearly 102,000 signatures if they want to put the issue on the ballot anytime soon. Some 800 volunteers are circulating petitions, but the tight time frame creates a high bar — the state, by contrast, gives recall petitioners 160 days. A bigger problem may be a detail in the municipal code that makes recall elections open to legal challenges. Though the city council is hurrying to amend the code, the recall process could get messy and would certainly take months to move forward.

There is a possible third avenue, buried in another corner of the city code, which allows for city officials to be removed if they have misused city funds. The San Diego city attorney will soon be presenting related evidence to the city council; media reports have circulated allegations that Filner used a city-issued credit card to buy himself expensive meals and a blender. Land-use deals Filner hatched are also being put under the microscope. The council will likely vote next week on whether to go forward with this tack, which could also get caught up in judicial appeals and red tape.

Filner has admitted to wrongdoing, but his biggest act of penance thus far was taking a hiatus for intensive behavioral rehab. He was due to return to work on Aug. 19 but has been in mediation the past two days. When he emerges, the city will find out if he’s had a change of heart.

MORE: San Diego Mayor Bob Filner Digs In as Sex-Harassment Troubles Mount