December 22, 2011

Mayor Johnson pushes arena plan, strong-mayor initiative

The two most important initiatives of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson's political career are about to collide.

The two most important initiatives of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson's political career are about to collide.

Even as he tries to gain support among his City Council colleagues for a plan to finance a new downtown sports arena, the mayor and his supporters are criticizing how those same council members operate in order to build support for a plan to give the mayor more power.

A coalition of Johnson's most loyal supporters announced Wednesday a renewed push for changes in the city constitution, a plan they have dubbed the "Checks and Balances Act of 2012."

While Johnson was absent from the announcement at downtown's Park Tower, he will ask the City Council in mid-January to place the measure on the June 2012 ballot. Just a few weeks later, the council is expected to vote on whether to move forward with an arena financing plan.

The debate over a previous proposal from Johnson to strengthen his office was incendiary, which is already worrying some who have a stake in the arena project.

Matt Kelly, head of the Sacramento-Sierra Building and Construction Trades Council, said a heated debate over the city governance structure could end up being "counterproductive to what we're trying to accomplish with the arena."

"Right now (Johnson) wants something from the City Council (on the arena), but on the backside, he's bashing them," Kelly said. "Both efforts need support from the council."

In an emailed statement, Johnson dismissed the notion that the two initiatives would work against one another. "To improve Sacramento's economic future, we must have the ability to do multiple major initiatives at the same time," he said.

Part of Johnson's governing plan would feature granting the mayor's post more authority than it has now. However, those proposed powers would be less far-reaching than those featured in Johnson's 2008 Strong Mayor Initiative, which a judge tossed off the ballot.

The latest plan would give the mayor the ability to fire the city manager, who currently makes most day-to-day decisions at City Hall. The mayor could also appoint a city manager, but would need City Council approval of that selection.

The mayor, not an unelected city manager, would propose the city budget and have veto authority over some City Council decisions.

The City Council would have final say over the budget and be able to hire and fire the city attorney, treasurer, clerk, auditor and budget analyst. It could override mayoral vetoes.

The measure would also create an independent redistricting commission and a citizens ethics committee.

Johnson needs five votes from the council, including his own, to place the measure on the June ballot. If he fails, he is expected to collect signatures to place the measure on the November 2012 ballot.

At their Wednesday press conference, Johnson's backers argued that the City Council's is a big reason Sacramento needs a stronger mayor.

The Rev. Darryl Heath, pastor of St. John Missionary Baptist Church downtown, said at Wednesday's press conference that he and others are "greatly disappointed at the behavior and conduct of the council."

"We need a city that is governed by one vision," he said. "At this time, we have eight visions dealing with one city."

The mayor's chief of staff, Kunal Merchant, said there is "a frustration with how things work at City Hall right now" and that "we have to fundamentally restructure how City Hall works."

Surrounded by business organization leaders, the head of the city's police union and other loyal Johnson supporters, Merchant said the charter proposal "is bigger than the mayor; this is about the city."

The mayor's aides said they are confident that three other council members would support placing the measure on the June 2012 ballot. That would leave Johnson one vote short.

One of those council members being counted on for his support of a June ballot measure – Councilman Steve Cohn – said last week that the city has "a lot on our plate" and that Johnson's proposal was "not really at the top of my agenda in terms of priorities."

Finding a fifth vote could present a challenge for Johnson.

Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy, a chief mayoral opponent, said last week she doesn't think Johnson has enough votes on the council to place his plan on the June ballot.

"A mayor can be a strong mayor, he doesn't have to go to the ballot," she said. "A leader doesn't need a strong mayor."

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