Mention the phrase “strong mayor” in Sacramento and people know the topic. It’s hard not to after five years of conversations that include a successful initiative drive that gathered more than 34,000 signatures to qualify a ballot measure, 60 hours of public meetings by a City Council-appointed committee and a separate ballot measure to create a charter revision commission. Also included were town halls and community presentations addressing 2,000 residents in 36 events, and almost 20 public hearings by the City Council discussing whether Sacramento voters deserve a chance to modernize the roles of the mayor and City Council.
And all of this occurred prior to 2013.
The conversation just won’t go away, and Sacramento Tomorrow was created as a community-driven nonprofit organization to ask “How come?” Led by nearly 30 Sacramento leaders – representing neighborhoods, labor organizations, large businesses, small businesses, the arts and past public officials – Sacramento Tomorrow has reached into the community to figure out whether voters remain interested in having a chance to mirror what other cities have done to attract the strongest possible leadership and, if so, what proposal represents the best governance model for Sacramento.
We have been hard at work for the past four months, taking full advantage of the prior knowledge that people possess. We have met with many neighborhood associations and continue to do so, have contacted nearly every labor organization and business group in town, and conducted a telephone town hall with 2,600 Sacramento voters asking questions and discussing the issue with us.
And here is what we have heard in the main:
• Sacramento residents are excited about the Kings’ decision to stay in town and recognize enormous opportunities can come to our city as a result.
• Everyone deserves the benefit of that decision, including workers, neighborhoods, businesses throughout the city, people wanting improved public services, even people who don’t follow basketball.
• A city on the verge of such opportunity must have leaders equal to the task and a mayor who can set a vision, work in partnership with the council, and represent Sacramento with authority to those who demand decisions.
• We have benefited from some terrific mayors in Sacramento under the current structure, but we ought to consider whether a change in the mayor’s job description would make strong leadership predictable rather then a result of good luck.
• The “strong mayor” discussion up to now has been more about “who” rather than “what,” and the only way to get past that is to devise a plan that is appropriate to Sacramento and its future, and let the voters decide once and for all.
• There needs to be a thoughtful balance of authorities between the mayor and City Council, avoiding the creation of such a powerful mayor that the council’s role is meaningless while at the same time making sure the mayor can provide a vision, effectively manage city operations, and have the entire governance of Sacramento be directly accountable to the voters.
• If enacted, the new structure should be road-tested for a while to see if it’s working. If so, voters can approve it a second time, making it permanent.
• The mayor should have the authority to hire the city manager with the council’s involvement, and then ask the city manager to identify the professionals throughout the city departments.
• Likewise, the city attorney and city clerk ought to be hired by the City Council.
• While voters absolutely ought to have the chance to decide the issue, the question remains, “How exactly will Sacramento benefit?”
With this input, Sacramento Tomorrow incorporated these suggestions into the last proposed charter change the council considered, along with what’s working and not in other California cities with a “strong mayor” form of government. We presented our proposed charter amendments to City Council last week, and it is now up to them to decide whether the measure should be put to Sacramento voters in 2014.
Sacramento Tomorrow has held a discussion with the community about the future. How do we meet it fully equipped to take rightful advantage? How do the neighborhoods benefit from the growth? How do jobs get created? How do businesses come out of the recession and blaze into the economic growth just around the corner?
In other words, how do we face head-on what could be the most dynamic period of economic development in the city’s history. Having a mayor empowered to lead, and asking the best possible people to step up to the plate to offer to serve, is one way voters ought to be asked to meet that future.
Barbara O’Connor, co-chair of Sacramento Tomorrow, is emeritus professor of communications and director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Sacramento State. Steve Ayers, co-chair of Sacramento Tomorrow, is CEO of Armour Steel Co.