It's a plan lauded by supporters as inclusive government at its best, in a city where that kind of thing is embraced.
But critics, including Mayor Kevin Johnson, say deploying a 15-member elected commission to review the city's charter would be an expensive waste of time, one that could get hijacked by special interests.
On Tuesday, the City Council voted to put a measure on the November ballot to create the commission, which would spend two years poring over the city charter. Any recommended changes would go before voters in 2014.
Councilman Kevin McCarty, the commission's chief backer, said it's a quintessentially Sacramento approach.
"People in Sacramento like bottom-up approaches to overhauling things," McCarty said.
The council's action immediately drew fire from the city's police union, which sent word to city labor officials that it was breaking off contract negotiations, angry that the council had agreed to set aside thousands of dollars for a charter commission at the same time officers are being asked to contribute toward their pensions. With negotiations dead, 16 officers will almost certainly be laid off.
"To sit there and tell us financial times are so tough that you have no more money and then spend $621,000 (on the commission) just shows there hasn't been a good-faith effort to find a solution," said Dustin Smith, the acting president of the police union.
McCarty said the cost estimates are being overstated and described the police union's argument as hollow. While the police union had agreed to make pension concessions, it was also asking for raises that city officials said would prove too costly in the future.
What's more, McCarty said, the $316,578 in administrative costs budgeted for the charter commission would be covered by existing staff resources and the city should not have to take money from other pots of its budget. If it does, McCarty asked that those extra expenses be capped at $25,000.
Johnson has also criticized the commission's cost, calling the effort "a waste of time." Johnson has proposed his own series of changes to the charter through multiple proposals that would have enhanced his office's authority, but he has been unable to get any of those plans on the ballot.
Johnson and council members Angelique Ashby and Jay Schenirer voted against placing the charter commission measure on the ballot. Still, the concept of an elected charter commission has broad support at City Hall.
Even Ashby who tried to kill the plan with a failed substitute motion on Tuesday said she doesn't necessarily object to the idea, just the timing. She is a vocal ally of the public safety unions, both of which have been asked to make pension concessions in order to avoid layoffs.
The public safety unions are also concerned that the commission might lead to the reversal of legislation passed by city voters in the 1990s, which required the city to submit to binding arbitration in labor disputes. Business groups also oppose the creation of the commission out of concern that it would recommend new fees and tighter regulations.
Other labor unions have expressed varying degrees of concern about the commission's potential impact on collective bargaining procedures, but none showed up to protest the vote on Tuesday.
The City Council set aside a total of just under $650,000 for the endeavor, which includes the cost of the November ballot measure. The election cost would also cover any other ballot measures, including a proposal that seeks to limit most yard waste collection to bins and a possible sales tax measure.
For now, the charter commission is the only measure on the city ballot. The city has budgeted $205,100 for the November ballot measure, including $50,000 for an extra page on the ballot to accommodate as many as 40 or so candidates seeking to serve on the commission, plus room for write-in candidates.
But Jill LaVine, the county registrar of voters, said she could envision as many as 100 candidates entering the race for the commission a total that would require at least one more ballot page than the city has budgeted. For every additional page required, the city is on the hook for $50,000.
"It's going to be a very snug ballot with lots of people on it," LaVine said.
City officials don't know what to expect.
The most recent elected commission in California served in Los Angeles from 1997 to 1999. Its work resulted in the establishment of neighborhood councils, stronger powers for the mayor and an ethics commission. But it also turned into "a can of worms in which any issues might be raised," James Ingram, a policy analyst for the Los Angeles commission, told the Sacramento City Council earlier this year.
Ingram added that few residents showed up for commission meetings and "several of our members were using their seats as a springboard for future elected office."
Political observers have wondered whether council members and special interest groups will seek to fill the Sacramento commission with allies. Others wonder whether the mayor will oppose the plan, or recruit a slate of candidates in the hopes of filling the body with commissioners who might recommend a form of government granting his office more power.
McCarty said he's already heard from residents interested in running for the commission. And he rejects concerns by some who argue that the body will be filled by politically connected individuals seeking a spotlight.
"I trust Sacramento," he said.