Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson's crusade to enhance his office's powers has been a defining political issue of his mayoral career, rivaled only by his fight to keep the Kings in town.
He's tried three times to advance variations of a strong-mayor plan to the ballot for a public vote. And he's failed all three times, often amid an atmosphere of warring special interests and political discord at City Hall.
Now, some of the biggest names in Sacramento politics are trying to persuade the City Council to move a strong-mayor measure to the ballot with a new approach: removing Johnson from the discussion.
A diverse group dubbed "Sacramento Tomorrow" announced this week that it will hold a series of private meetings in the coming months with neighborhood associations, business groups and labor unions. The group intends to craft a strong-mayor plan out of those meetings that it will present to the City Council by the end of this year, with the goal of persuading the council to place a measure on the ballot perhaps as early as June 2014.
Some members of the group have been vocal supporters of Johnson's previous strong-mayor attempts, including the committee's co-chairman, steel company executive Steve Ayers, and Stan Van Vleck, an attorney and rancher who served as a key promoter of Johnson's most recent plan in 2012.
But the roster also includes some names that are new to the contentious debate, including former city Police Chief Rick Braziel, B Street Theatre artistic director Buck Busfield and homeless advocate Sister Libby Fernandez.
David Nagler, the committee's director, said the group has notified the mayor's office of its plan, but has not spoken directly with Johnson.
"People have criticized the past efforts as being about giving Kevin Johnson more power," Nagler said. "This isn't just a rehash of past conversations."
Sacramento is one of the few large cities in California run primarily by a city manager, and Johnson despite his title is just another vote on the nine-member City Council.
His last attempt at placing a strong-mayor plan on the ballot was shot down by the City Council in February 2012. Under that plan, the mayor would have had the power to appoint and remove the city manager pending City Council approval, propose the city budget and veto some council actions.
Johnson eventually retreated from the push to enhance his authority, telling The Bee in December that he would embrace his limited role and seek to use his celebrity power to build Sacramento's profile. He was later praised for using his connections to recruit a new ownership group for the Sacramento Kings that has pledged to keep the team here.
For the first time since taking office, Johnson may have a City Council that is receptive to placing a strong-mayor measure on the ballot. Some of the previous measure's biggest opponents on the council have stepped down, replaced by council members who are seen as open to a vote on the matter.
Ben Sosenko, the mayor's spokesman, said Johnson is "aware of, but not involved" in the latest effort.
"You just have to look back over the past few years to know his position on the issue," Sosenko said. "We appreciate the group of some of Sacramento's leading citizens stepping up and we look forward to seeing how this develops."
Johnson had been criticized by opponents in the past for not consulting a broad enough group of people when crafting his proposals. Nagler said Sacramento Tomorrow plans to meet with more than 40 interest groups. He said they've already held discussions with some neighborhood associations, but would not identify them.
One key interest group that has resisted Johnson's plans is organized labor, whose leaders have expressed worries about giving a single elected official the power to fire and hire some city workers, and potentially make decisions about contracting out city services.
In response, Sacramento Tomorrow included labor consultant Maurice Read on its committee.
Read said he would bring "healthy skepticism" to the discussion.
"I'm in there because I think that if it truly is going to be broad-based, they need to have people from all over the community," he said.
Other opponents of Johnson's previous strong-mayor proposals remain dubious.
Kerri Asbury, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Sacramento County, said she appreciates Sacramento Tomorrow's approach, criticizing Johnson's other plans as "top down."
"They wised up and recognized they have to talk to regular Sacramentans," Asbury said.
At the same time, Asbury isn't convinced a change is needed and she's worried that the group doesn't have enough time to adequately assess the concerns of the city.
"If they're going to talk to people, great. But I still wonder what the justification is," she said. "If you're going to revise the city charter, that's a pretty rushed timeline. This is our city, there's a lot at stake."