Despite strong-mayor defeat, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson wants major increase in his office staff

Mayor Kevin Johnson proposes five new positions costing about $681,000 to fortify his office. Though the budget has not been approved, a legislative director is said to have been hired.
Mayor Kevin Johnson proposes five new positions costing about $681,000 to fortify his office. Though the budget has not been approved, a legislative director is said to have been hired. lsterling@sacbee.com

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who lost his bid in November to bolster his powers through a ballot measure, has engineered a citywide spending plan that would nearly double his office’s budget and give him more staff than the mayors of Oakland and Fresno.

Five new positions and nearly $700,000 are proposed to fortify the mayor’s office, an increase of more than 70 percent in staff and spending since last year. One of those jobs, legislative director, already has been filled – weeks ahead of the council’s first budget debate Tuesday and more than a month before the spending plan is likely to be adopted.

Critics and one councilman said that early hire and an accounting maneuver that places three of Johnson’s new positions in the city manager’s budget line rather than his own may overshadow spending initiatives that city leaders have touted, such as replacing firehouses and upgrading parks.

But the mayor’s office said Friday that the positions will amplify, not undermine, Johnson’s plans for Sacramento. By growing his staff, spokesman Ben Sosenko told The Sacramento Bee, the mayor also increases his ability to complete projects he has already undertaken.

“Mayor Johnson has a robust agenda that includes a new housing initiative where we plan to add 10,000 housing units downtown in the next 10 years, developing the railyards and playing a larger role in creating the budget priorities,” Sosenko said in a statement Friday.

The budget, introduced by City Manager John Shirey about two weeks ago, was shaped differently than in years past, with Johnson and some council members playing a key role in drafting the spending plan.

The document itself divvies up the five new mayoral positions – two are listed under the mayor’s line item, while three others are listed as employees under the city manager’s purview.

City spokeswoman Linda Tucker said Friday that though the three positions are in the city manager’s budget as “liaisons” meant to work with the mayor’s office, all three would actually be mayoral employees. They would work in, not with, the mayor’s office, she said.

The three staffers’ salaries total $457,181. Asked why the positions weren’t included in the mayor’s budget, Sosenko said the city’s manager’s office was responsible. Tucker, speaking on behalf of the city manager’s office, directed the same question back to the mayor.

“There are a lot of good things in (the budget). It’s unfortunate that some of this good work gets overshadowed by a play to put staff people in without disclosing it to the public,” said Andrew Acosta, a Sacramento political consultant who has run several city campaigns, including those for Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, a Johnson critic when he served on the council.

“If it’s the mayor’s budget that he’s been pushing for, he has to own all of it,” Acosta added. “You can’t just own pieces of it and then push some stuff you don’t want to own onto the city manager’s office.”

The section of the document outlining the mayor’s proposals shows an increase of $224,480 from last year, most of which would fund two new positions that will “perform a variety of complex confidential administrative, compliance, and constituent functions, in addition to supporting senior staff in the Office of the Mayor.”

All told, the city would spend $681,661 on the five new positions, an amount that would have accounted for 75 percent of the mayor’s entire budget two years ago. In one year, Johnson would go from having seven employees to 12.

“This is an exceptional amount of money being asked to fund the mayor’s office without justification,” City Councilman Steve Hansen told The Bee. “We still have the need to restore services, and rather than invest in our own offices, we should be investing in city services that serve the public.”

Hansen noted that with the same amount of money, the city could hire seven police officers or 14 parks workers.

“I can’t understand why the mayor needs another $700,000 in positions,” he said.

Though the legislative director job has already been filled, neither Tucker nor Sosenko disclosed Friday who had been hired and what the employee is being paid.

“For six years, Mayor Johnson has been operating with a skeleton staff of seven while the city manager has a staff of close to 4,500 employees,” Sosenko said, referring to the total number of city workers. “We look forward to having more capacity as we continue to work diligently to move Sacramento forward.”

The entire council has more money to spend under the new proposal, with the budget for the City Council and mayor offices proposed to increase by $875,206. Johnson’s budget boost is responsible for most of that increase.

The city would tap the general fund, money that supports core city services, for most of the additional spending. A portion of the money for new council and mayoral employees, $167,652, would come from cellular tower lease revenue that used to go to the city’s general fund.

If the budget is approved as written, the City Council will also see an 18 percent increase in staff and 6 percent increase in its spending from last year.

For the first time, Johnson drove much of the budget process this spring, holding a series of town hall forums and compiling a list of priorities he wanted Shirey to include in the city’s overall spending plan.

Those priorities totaled more than $23 million. Shirey included nearly $19 million of that in his proposed budget.

Sacramento’s budget has historically been crafted by the city manager with limited upfront input from the mayor and City Council. That arrangement was the core of Johnson’s argument for passing a strong-mayor ballot measure in November. The mayor argued that elected officials held accountable by the voters should play a more direct role in how city resources are spent.

Johnson’s ballot measure was soundly defeated. Still, a majority of the eight City Council members are politically supportive of the mayor and generally back his agenda. By increasing his role in City Hall’s day-to-day operations and seeking to increase his staff, Johnson is testing the limits of his office without strong-mayor powers.

Staff numbers vary for mayor’s offices in cities the size of Sacramento, but Johnson’s even dozen appears to be at the high end.

In Fresno, the mayor’s office would have 10 employees under that city’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year. In Oakland, the mayor’s office is slated to have 11 employees. Both cities have strong-mayor forms of government.

Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia has a staff of 5.45 full-time positions in the current fiscal year. Like Sacramento, that city is governed by a system in which the city manager proposes the budget and is responsible for most daily operations.

Tuesday’s budget discussion will be the first of a series of hearings before a vote to adopt a final city budget next month.

Call The Bee’s Marissa Lang at (916) 321-1038. Follow her on Twitter at @Marissa_Jae.

Mayor Kevin Johnson’s staff expansion

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