Sacramento City Council votes to place strong-mayor measure on ballot

After nearly five years of lawsuits and political acrimony at City Hall, a divided Sacramento City Council on Tuesday night voted to place a measure on the November 2014 ballot that proposes increased powers for the mayor and other sweeping changes to the way the city is governed.

By a 5-4 vote, the council agreed to the wishes of a group of business and neighborhood activists by calling for a vote on a measure that would include a so-called “strong mayor” power system; citizen committees tasked with overseeing a City Hall code of ethics and drawing new districts for council members; a neighborhood advisory panel; and term limits for the mayor.

The council vote was noticeably without drama. While previous debates had attracted large crowds of supporters and opponents to City Hall, fewer than a dozen people testified Tuesday – and only one of those spoke against the plan.

It was the fourth time since Mayor Kevin Johnson took office in 2008 that a strong-mayor plan was debated by the council. Johnson first proposed enhancing his office’s authority just a few days after his first term began and he has remained a vocal advocate for the change, arguing it was needed to bring Sacramento in line with most other large cities that also concentrate powers with the mayor.

“I think it’s a win for democracy, as it will give the public the opportunity to determine whether they want to reform city government to improve accountability and make sure they, the public, can hold officials directly responsible,” the mayor said in an interview following the vote. “It also gives us a chance to bring Sacramento into the 21st century so we can better serve the public and be more responsive to challenges.”

Johnson was joined by council members Angelique Ashby, Allen Warren, Steve Cohn and Jay Schenirer in support of placing the measure on the ballot. Council members Steve Hansen, Kevin McCarty, Darrell Fong and Bonnie Pannell voted against the proposal.

The measure would transfer some of the powers wielded by the unelected city manager to the mayor, including the authority to propose the annual city budget. The mayor could also nominate and remove the city manager.

Unlike previous proposals, the plan does not propose creating a ninth City Council district to fill the seat on the council dais vacated by the mayor, who would no longer preside over council meetings. With eight districts, proposals before the council would require at least five votes to succeed; votes of 4-4 would result in a motion’s failure.

The 11 members of the public who spoke in favor of placing the measure on the ballot included top officials in the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce, influential pastors and builders.

“This is a vote of confidence in the citizens of the city to determine what form of government they prefer,” said Pastor Rick Cole of the Capital Christian Center in Rosemont.

Labor leader Bill Camp said he was concerned that concentrating powers with the mayor would take away from the influence neighborhood leaders have at City Hall.

“We want someone making the decisions who lives with the results in our neighborhoods, who sees and lives what the effects of your decisions are every day,” he said. “What we don’t want is a government elected by big money.”

It was Camp who filed a lawsuit in 2009 that led to the end of Johnson’s first strong-mayor attempt.

A signature drive had qualified the measure for the ballot and a deeply divided council voted to place it on the ballot. But a Sacramento judge later reversed that call in response to Camp’s lawsuit, ruling that the kind of full-scale revision of the city charter proposed by the mayor could be brought to the voters only by an elected body such as the City Council – not by a petition drive.

When another plan went to the City Council in 2010, the mayor predicted that the council was “on the brink of doing something very historic in the city of Sacramento.”

Minutes later, the council voted 7-2 to deny his plans. In a sequence that is still talked about in City Hall, Johnson responded by laying into most of the council members who voted “no.”

Last year, Johnson tried again. And again, the council rejected his plan and opted instead to ask voters if they wanted to create an elected charter review commission tasked with exploring changes to the city charter. The voters overwhelmingly rejected the charter committee ballot measure.

This time around, the interest groups pushing for a 2014 ballot measure sought to distance the campaign from Johnson. Leaders of the coalition said they did not consult with Johnson during the drafting of the initiative, but that his office was updated during the process.

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