SAN DIEGO In the five weeks since Mayor Bob Filner was first accused of sexual harassment by an aide, San Diego has almost felt like a city held hostage.
On Monday, television cameras were lined up at City Hall hoping to catch a glimpse of his return, since it was supposed to be his first day back after two weeks at a rehabilitation program and a week of personal leave. His top aide said she had no idea where he was.
About 1,000 residents volunteered to fan out across this normally unhurried, sun-drenched city, hustling to collect the more than 101,000 signatures needed to force a recall. And the City Council president said his goal was to get rid of the mayor "and get this city back on track."
Sixteen women have now stepped forward to accuse Filner, 70, a former Democratic congressman, of inappropriate behavior.
Calls for his resignation have been piling up, including from national Democratic leaders and the entire City Council.
As the day passed, there was no sign of the mayor at City Hall. Instead, a local television station showed him walking into a downtown office building, followed a short time later by Gloria Allred, who is representing some of the women who have accused him of sexual harassment.
As she left the building Monday evening, Allred told reporters that the two sides were in settlement talks mediated by a retired federal judge. She declined to provide details, and would not say whether Filner was directly involved in the negotiations, but other city officials including Council President Todd Gloria were taking part.
Filner has consistently rejected resigning. Every other route poses more of a challenge to his opponents, who were exploring obscure city laws regarding his use of public money. The petitioners seeking a recall must collect 101,157 signatures of registered city voters by Sept. 26 equal to roughly 2,600 a day. If they fail, they will have an additional 30 days for a supplemental petition. A spokeswoman for the recall effort, which began on Sunday, said they had collected several thousand signatures.
Anger continued to grow over the city's near-paralysis.
"Contrary to what the mayor apparently thinks, this is not going away," said Gloria, a Democrat.
Over these weeks, Filner and his city have gone from fame to infamy. As the local news has detailed the accusations from the "Filner headlock," in which the mayor gripped a woman so that she could not escape, to asking a 67-year-old part-time City Hall worker if she thought he was able to "go for eight hours straight" the city has been the source of a steady stream of late-night jokes.
Mark Cafferty, executive director of the San Diego Economic Development Corp., said, "Every conversation I have with people who are thinking of doing business here whether they are in another part of the country or another part of the world even starts and ends with the jokes from Conan O'Brien."
Cafferty now considers tracking the jokes part of his job. His current favorite is O'Brien's East Coast vs. West Coast Municipal Government Perv-off, comparing Filner to the New York City mayoral candidate, Anthony Weiner. The San Diego mayor won.
The absence of the mayor did not stop some of his supporters from rallying in front of City Hall, singing "We Shall Overcome," and saying the accusations amounted to a media conspiracy.
"There's an establishment here in San Diego they want to get rid of Filner," said Floyd Morrow, 81, who was a city councilman in the 1960s and ran unsuccessfully in 2010. He said he did not believe the women had been sexually assaulted.
"I believe they want to get their 10 seconds of fame."