Editorial: Better path to a 'strong mayor' vote

Published: Tuesday, Jul. 23, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 8A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jul. 30, 2013 - 1:53 pm

The "strong mayor" debate is returning to Sacramento, but this time in a more inclusive way that is more likely to produce a plan that can win widespread support.

A broad-based coalition, composed of former elected officials and other civic leaders, is launching a community discussion on whether the city needs a new governance structure and, if so, what it should look like.

Calling themselves Sacramento Tomorrow, leaders of this new effort plan to hold neighborhood meetings and reach out to labor, business and other groups during the next several months. They're aiming for a possible ballot measure in June 2014 – with any changes likely not taking effect until the mayor is elected in 2016, whether it's Kevin Johnson or someone else.

Because the group's leaders are promising to do so many things right, that makes it even more disappointing that they're going so wrong on one crucial decision.

By organizing under section 501(c)(4) of the federal tax code – supposedly for "social welfare" organizations – the group can collect unlimited donations from individuals and businesses who can remain nameless to the public.

However noble the group's goals, that will only fuel suspicions of who is funding it. It is at odds with the leaders' pledges of openness and transparency, and it threatens to undermine the entire effort.

Advisory Committee co-chairpersons Steve Ayers, CEO of Armour Steel Co., and Barbara O'Connor, a political analyst and professor emeritus, told The Bee's editorial board that they followed the advice of attorneys, who said the choice gives them room to operate without risk of violating tax laws.

They decided not to be a 527, a political group required to disclose contributors. They decided against forming as a 501(c)(3), which would have allowed donations to be tax deductible. That kind of nonprofit can engage in a limited amount of lobbying, and can also hold educational meetings and public policy discussions.

The group does not have a preconceived plan, but does have guiding principles to create a more accountable and effective government: a mayor who is chief executive, similar to those in Fresno, Los Angeles and San Francisco; a City Council that has legislative authority and oversight over spending; and "good government" provisions such as an ethics code and "sunshine" ordinance.

That sounds a lot like the last "strong mayor" proposal from Johnson that the council rejected on a 5-4 vote in February 2012. While the group includes some Johnson supporters, its leaders insist it is not tied to the mayor, who became a lightning rod by pursuing more power as soon as he took office in December 2008.

If this more grass-roots effort – separated as much as possible from Johnson – results in a long-overdue vote on this important issue, it will have succeeded.

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