Sacramento City Council votes 5-4 for strong mayor proposal

After a contentious debate, the Sacramento City Council voted 5-4 late Tuesday to place a proposal that would strengthen the mayor’s power on the ballot for voters to decide in November 2014.

The plan, if approved, would alter the way Sacramento is governed by concentrating power with the mayor’s office. The stakes in this battle are high for Mayor Kevin Johnson, who has thrice failed to persuade fellow council members to approve similar proposals.

Johnson, along with council members Angelique Ashby, Allen Warren, Steve Cohn and Jay Schenirer, voted for the proposal. Council members Steve Hansen, Kevin McCarty, Darrell Fong and Bonnie Pannell voted against it.

City Attorney James Sanchez will incorporate changes council members suggested Tuesday night before the ballot language is finalized.

Warren expressed hope that taking the measure directly to voters would finally put the issue to rest.

“Our city has grown weary of this discussion,” he said. “I’m of the opinion that this should be decided by the people.”

A group called Sacramento Tomorrow spearheaded the latest push for a strong mayor, without Johnson’s participation. The organization of local community and business leaders released a final draft of the proposal to the public early October.

Sacramento remains one of the few large cities in California run by a city council, something proponents of strong mayor say is outdated.

“Sixty-percent of the top 50 cities in the United States based on population have an executive mayor system,” said Erica Bjork, a leader of Metro EDGE, a young professionals organization.

Hansen, who spoke at length Tuesday night, expressed skepticism.

“It doesn’t give us more jobs, it doesn’t help our neighborhoods,” he said. “It doesn’t move our city forward.”

The proposal, called the 2014 Checks and Balances Act, is similar to previous measures championed by Johnson. The mayor would appoint the city manager, who would become the city’s chief administrative officer, pending City Council approval. The mayor could also unilaterally remove the city manager.

About 100 people showed up at City Hall to watch the debate and ensuing vote. A slew of activists, community leaders and citizens voiced concerns and support for the proposal.

Paula Lee of the League of Women Voters said the city has “thrived” under the current form of government and urged council members to vote against the proposal.

If approved by voters, the act would “sunset” after five years and require a second vote at that time on whether to make the change permanent.

Johnson’s last attempt at placing a strong-mayor plan on the ballot box was shot down by the City Council in February 2012. The mayor eventually relented in his pursuit of more authority and embraced his more limited role.

Fong, who voted against the proposal Tuesday, said the council was “picking and choosing what goes to voters.”

“When do you let the people vote?” he asked, noting that the Kings arena proposal was not put on the ballot box.