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The character and leadership of the person we elect as Sacramento mayor matters as much as, if not more than, the powers vested in the office. That said, a mayor stands a stronger chance to succeed and move the city forward with the additional tools and authority granted under Measure L.
It is a balanced plan that would make city government more nimble and more accountable, and it merits voters’ support.
For us, this momentous decision for Sacramento’s future comes down to some key points. While the city generally has been blessed with good mayors, the proposed “strong mayor” system is more likely to attract the quality of people the city needs.
In the current system, the mayor commands the greatest attention and is the only person elected citywide. But the mayor actually has less influence over the daily workings of City Hall than an unelected city manager, who answers to City Council members who sometimes put parochial concerns of their districts ahead of the overall city’s best interests.
The council-manager form of government worked well when Sacramento was smaller; it makes less sense now and into the future. Other larger cities in California – Fresno, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego – have made the same transition, and none have gone back.
If Measure L is approved, the mayor would propose the city budget and could veto line items in the spending plan the council adopts. Starting Jan. 1, the mayor could also veto ordinances passed by the council. It would take a supermajority of at least six votes to override mayoral vetoes.
It’s not as if council members would somehow lose their influence. They would still pick the city attorney, clerk and treasurer. The council, led by a new president, could still be a counterweight and safeguard if the mayor goes off track. As Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin told us, the quickest way to unite a council is for a mayor to be too power hungry.
Under the new system, the city manager would become the city’s chief administrator. The mayor would appoint that person, subject to confirmation by the council, but could remove the manager at will. City Manager John Shirey has done a good job and wisely agreed to extend his contract through at least June 30. If Measure L passes, we hope he and Mayor Kevin Johnson find a way for him to stay on.
The most compelling concern raised by Measure L opponents is that the voice of neighborhoods – fundamental to Sacramento – would be quieted at City Hall. That’s why it’s so important that another provision in the measure – a new neighborhood advisory committee – is done right, building upon many strong neighborhood associations and community groups.
There are a few flaws in Measure L that eventually would need fixing. With the mayor no longer on the council, there would be eight council members, making tied votes more likely. A ninth district – if one is created – would not happen until 2020 redistricting.
Still, Measure L is much improved from earlier “strong mayor” plans, especially the initial one that Johnson now concedes was a rash overreach. Consequently, the coalition behind the proposal is much broader and includes business, labor and other groups.
A big part of what makes this plan better is that it includes several other significant changes to the city charter. Besides the neighborhood advisory council, it calls for an independent citizens commission to draw council districts and an independent analyst to watch the budget. It requires a “sunshine” ordinance to improve public access to city meetings and documents. And it requires an ethics code for elected officials and appointees and a new ethics committee to monitor compliance.
These are all important good-government reforms. It’s an opportunity – and a risk – that their specifics are not spelled out in Measure L. The council – not the mayor – would be in charge of that work; residents should also get plenty of input.
It has taken years of political twists and turns and often overheated wrangling to finally and rightfully give voters their say on this issue. It’s near impossible to separate the measure from Johnson, who has sought more power even before taking office in 2008. If it passes, he would reap its benefits for the remainder of his second term and all of a potential third before voters decide in 2020 whether to make the changes permanent.
Opponents say Johnson’s own accomplishments – the planned new downtown arena being Exhibit A – show that the mayor’s office doesn’t need more power. But the arena is more the exception than the rule. While Johnson is hardly, as he told us, a “figurehead,” he makes a forceful argument that the current system has stymied him on other priorities, such as fighting gangs.
In the end, however, this decision should not be about Mayor Johnson. Whether you love him or hate him, Measure L will be good for Sacramento.