Another ‘strong mayor’ campaign in Sacramento? ‘A question worth debating,’ Steinberg says

Steinberg raises concern that pension costs will devour Measure U revenue

With millions flowing into city coffers, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg raises concerns about the city budget showing the Measure U revenue will mostly be eaten up by skyrocketing pension costs in the four years starting July 1, 2020.
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With millions flowing into city coffers, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg raises concerns about the city budget showing the Measure U revenue will mostly be eaten up by skyrocketing pension costs in the four years starting July 1, 2020.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg sat in his seat at the center of the City Council dais on April 30, sleeves rolled up, a six-page speech in hand.

Millions of dollars in new revenue was starting to flow into city coffers, thanks to a sales tax increase Steinberg conceived and sold to voters largely as a way to invest in disadvantaged neighborhoods. But when it came time to create the document to show how the money could be spent, Steinberg played a limited role. The city’s “weak mayor” form of government requires City Manager Howard Chan to propose a budget, and Steinberg said he was worried Chan’s projections showed most of the new tax revenue would be eaten up by skyrocketing pension costs in the years ahead.

“People would not have voted for this (the Measure U sales tax measure) if they thought it was only going to pay for pensions and salaries. This is now a matter of trust with the voters,” Steinberg said during a 14-minute speech, a chart showing rising pension debt projected on the wall behind him.

After five weeks of wrangling, the City Council has essentially approved the budget with all of Steinberg’s big asks, but the contentious process left some council members and city political observers wondering: could Steinberg be planning to ask residents to change the city’s form of government to one that would give him and future mayors more power?

In a May 2 Sacramento Bee editorial board meeting, Steinberg was asked whether having a system where the mayor has a more direct role in writing the budget could have avoided a situation where the mayor felt he needed to publicly criticize the city budget process.

“Yes,” he replied.

How much different would the budget be if Steinberg was a “strong mayor?”

“Different,” he said. “It would’ve addressed the commitment (to spend Measure U on underserved neighborhoods).”

About two weeks later, Sacramento residents started getting calls from a survey company asking questions about the mayor, two East Sacramento residents told The Sacramento Bee. A campaign committee controlled by Steinberg paid for the poll, his office said.

Despite the poll, Steinberg has no present plan to take the strong mayor measure to the ballot, his spokeswoman Mary Lynne Vellinga said.

“As Mayor Steinberg recently demonstrated again through the Measure U debate, we already have a strong mayor,” Vellinga wrote in an emailed statement. “The questions the recent poll asks come from a different motive: Would the city be better over the long run with a system of greater accountability for those directly elected by the people? It’s a question worth debating and discussing.”

Steve Maviglio served as a political adviser for former Mayor Kevin Johnson, who ran an unsuccessful “strong mayor” ballot campaign in 2014. Maviglio said he thinks Steinberg is considering his own pursuit of a change in government – and rightfully so.

“He endorsed it when Kevin Johnson was mayor, so he understands the concept, and now that he’s in office, he understands it even more,” Maviglio said. “It’s incredibly frustrating when you have the title of mayor but none of the responsibilities your constituents think you have. And when you have difficulties pursuing your agenda because of the roadblocks inherent in the weak mayor system, it’s incredibly frustrating doing the things you want to do and yet you’re held responsible.”

It’s apparent in recent months Steinberg has felt that frustration, Maviglio said.

As the figurehead of the city, Steinberg bears the brunt of residents’ passionate comments about homelessness and police treatment of black and poor communities, even as he pushes hard for the city to spend millions more dollars than it ever has to build homeless shelters and uplift minority neighborhoods.

The mayor has mostly been able to bring most of the council on board with his approach to aggressively tackle those two issues, but as a strong mayor, he could work even faster, Maviglio said.

“As the mayor you want to act at lightning bolt speed,” Maviglio said. “You want to see a problem and attack it.”

A handful of large California cities have “strong mayors” – including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland and Fresno. San Jose has a “weak mayor.”

Some “strong mayor” cities still have a city manager or city administrator running the day-to-day functions of the city. Some allow the mayor to vote as tie breaker in City Council decisions and some give the mayor veto power.

It’s easier for mayors to pursue the change at the beginning of their terms, like Jerry Brown did in Oakland, Maviglio said.

“Waiting this long is problematic because there are people who are not as happy with Darrell Steinberg today as they were when he first got voted in,” Maviglio said.

Steinberg would likely have an easier time passing a strong mayor measure if he doesn’t face strong opposition in his re-election bid next year, Maviglio said.

The deadline is Dec. 6 for candidates seeking to run for mayor next year to submit paperwork to the city, according to assistant city clerk Wendy Klock-Johnson. The city has not yet started accepting paperwork for candidates. The earliest a strong mayor measure could be placed on the ballot would be the March 2020 election. The deadline for signatures to be turned into the city by someone seeking to place a measure on the ballot will be in mid-September, Klock-Johnson said.

While the mayor said he has no immediate plans to seek an increase in mayoral powers, voters are being asked for their opinions.

Phelps Hobart received a call from a pollster May 19, he told The Bee.

The caller asked several questions about Steinberg, including a “strong mayor” question phrased several different ways, he said. Hobart told the surveyor he was not a fan of the idea.

“The fear is you could approve it with one particular mayor and then it would still be in effect for one you don’t approve of,” Hobart said.

Nancy Wolford also received a call asking about the same topic, she said. She usually hangs up on survey calls, but when she was asked about her thoughts on the strong mayor form of government, she stayed on the line.

“It made me all of a sudden perk up,” Wolford said. “I thought, ‘Oh, they’re floating that again.’”

Wolford, a fourth generation Sacramentan, wants the city government structure to stay the way it is, she told the surveyor.

“I think a trained administrator is what we need in this city, not a political person,” Wolford said.

Councilman Jeff Harris heard about the calls, which prompted him to bring it up during last week’s City Council meeting while raising concerns about his and Councilwoman Angelique Ashby’s districts being left out of Steinberg’s proposal to spend $16 million in new Measure U money, which the council approved.

“I’d like to point out those two council districts have the highest propensity voters in the city and they will definitely pay attention to anybody who aspires to be mayor or a strong mayor or a senator or any other thing,” Harris said. “They will not forget that they were left out of this conversation.”

Steinberg responded: “I know we have an odd system. I am one City Council member, as Council member Harris said earlier. I am the only citywide elected member. And I campaigned specifically for this second half cent and devised it to invest most of the second half cent in the neighborhoods and economic development and especially in disadvantaged neighborhoods.”

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Theresa Clift covers Sacramento City Hall. Before joining The Bee in 2018, she worked as a local government reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Daily Press in Virginia and the Wausau Daily Herald in Wisconsin. She grew up in Michigan and graduated from Central Michigan University.