In a June 17 editorial, The Bee called an elected Sacramento Charter Commission a "bad idea." However, there are few issues more significant for our city's future than the structure of its government and a careful study of the need for city charter modifications.
With such vital issues facing Sacramento residents, how should they be examined and changes proposed? Will it be by a few private attorneys or political operatives who write ballot initiatives or by a panel of elected citizens?
Common Cause of Greater Sacramento believes an elected charter commission, operating in a transparent process, best facilitates public participation by community members. Common Cause is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that continues to fulfill its mission of holding power accountable.
Even though a so-called strong-mayor proposal continues to be discussed, some voters continue to push back because they believe building consensus within the current structure of government is a better model of representation. Creating an open and formal process to study what may or may not be outdated, and to research how changes may improve Sacramento is good. This means the public will have an opportunity to shape its governance, not merely react to the loudest or better funded voices.
The Bee's editorial appears to echo those who worry what a broader examination of our city's charter and ensuing recommendations may present. Common Cause volunteers have been working with Sacramento city government for years to encourage civic engagement and promote responsive public institutions. We would like to see these important participation and transparency issues addressed. The city of Los Angeles used a charter review commission to improve its governance by adding an ethics commission and empowering neighborhood councils, among other reforms. Sacramento may be ripe for similar reforms.
The cost of the commission is in dispute. Let's be clear and more informative. When the Sacramento City Council voted to put a Charter Review Commission on the November ballot, it specified that commissioners would be unpaid and would use existing city staff resources. So no additional staff will be hired to do the work of the commission. City Council members voted to put other issues on a November ballot, so an election is already required to be held. Additional funding needed to add the commission issue to the ballot is small and will vary according to the number of candidates running for seats on the commission. So, new costs to Sacramento are greatly lower than estimated. The City Council prevented spending more later when it capped spending for the commission.
What has not been mentioned is what happens if there is no public vote establishing a charter commission. A majority vote of the City Council can place a charter change with a strong-mayor ordinance on a ballot, incurring similar election costs. If successful, changing to this form of city government would incur millions in expenses, including the drawing of new voting districts to add a ninth City Council seat and increased staffing for the mayor's office. Without the charter commission, voters would be obligated to these costs without a public vote.
Sacramento may not be clamoring for charter change, but voters must have a chance to decide, to say yes or no. Isn't the establishment of the charter commission a "transparent" method to answer these questions? If The Bee opposes backroom tactics, what is the alternative it would endorse?
Common Cause of Greater Sacramento supports efforts to strengthen public participation and to ensure that political processes serve the public interest, rather than special interests. This is never simple. Transparency and ensuring more inclusive community involvement is usually more complicated and always more time-consuming. That's what open participatory governance looks like. It is worth the cost, however, to make public officials and public institutions accountable and responsive to citizens.