AUTUMN CRUZ / Bee file, 2010

Mayor Kevin Johnson says a strong-mayor structure could help Sacramento "catch" emerging cities like Denver and Portland.

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Kevin Johnson not giving up on Sacramento 'strong-mayor' proposal

Published: Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Sunday, Mar. 18, 2012 - 8:46 pm

It's the worst-kept secret at Sacramento City Hall: Mayor Kevin Johnson intends to relaunch his drive next year to grant his office more power through a "strong-mayor" initiative. It's only a matter of when.

The mayor and his aides are debating whether to push for a strong-mayor ballot measure as early as the June primary election, or hold off until November. As they decide, the mayor and his advisers are tackling a series of questions and concerns associated with both dates.

What's clear is Johnson's belief that Sacramento needs a strong mayor.

"What I have tried to do is articulate a vision for Sacramento, and I can't make that a reality in this governing structure," the mayor said last week.

"I can't make it a reality if everything we do in (City) Council is people going against things or saying 'no' just because the mayor came up with that idea. It doesn't do our constituents any good."

Under the plan now favored by Johnson's office, the mayor would propose the city budget, appoint and fire the city manager and department heads, and have some veto authority over City Council actions. Budget and appointment powers now mostly reside with an unelected city manager.

In return, the council would approve the budget, confirm mayoral appointments and have authority to hire and fire the city treasurer, attorney, clerk and auditor. A ninth council seat and a council president would also be created.

That proposal is a somewhat watered-down version of the plan Johnson got on the 2010 ballot through an initiative signature drive. A judge eventually tossed the plan off the ballot, ruling it was a full-scale charter revision that could not be proposed through the initiative process, but only by an elected body such as a City Council or charter commission.

If the latest plan is determined to be less far-reaching than the first, Johnson and his aides said there are two ways it could be placed on the ballot: through another signature drive or by the City Council drafting a plan to place before the voters.

At this point, it appears unlikely the council would agree to play a role.

"The residents of Sacramento aren't clamoring for this change," Councilman Kevin McCarty said. "I don't think a case has been built that we need this new system."

That leaves it in the hands of signature gatherers.

For a June vote, supporters would need to file at least 32,000 signatures to the city clerk by the middle of January. That would give city and county officials barely enough time to validate the signatures and bring the measure to the council for placement on the ballot.

June has other pitfalls that are being debated by Johnson's team.

The primary election might be a challenge because those elections attract more partisan voters – the kind of voters who tend not to favor Johnson.

Plus, by placing a strong- mayor initiative on the June ballot, the proposal could become a distracting issue in City Council campaigns, races that the mayor will be heavily invested in as he tries to unseat at least two of his colleagues.

If Johnson does opt for a June initiative, there is some thought that the controversial subject could attract an opponent from the city's political establishment to take on Johnson, who so far faces only a minimal challenge for re-election.

On the other hand, opponents of the previous strong-mayor proposals wanted the issue to go to voters at the same time they selected a mayor – and Johnson is seeking re-election in June. That gives Johnson an opportunity to silence some of his critics by taking them up on their challenge.

And perhaps above all else, Johnson is eager to move forward with the proposal. He said as much last week, insisting that Sacramento could "catch" emerging cities like Portland, Ore., and Denver - "but I do not think we can catch those cities with the current governing structure that we have."

Some in Johnson's camp think November is the better option because the general election in a presidential year will attract a higher turnout of independent voters – the kind of voters who make up the mayor's strongest base.

Still, November's ballot will likely be packed with other candidates and statewide initiatives, and the strong-mayor proposal could get lost in the shuffle.

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Read more articles by Ryan Lillis

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