For the mayor-elect, a hyphen separates power and preference

Then-Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg shares a laugh with Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson in 2013.
Then-Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg shares a laugh with Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson in 2013. Sacramento Bee file

A resounding June victory made Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg the most popular politician in modern Sacramento history – with no actual power.

It will be an unprecedented six months before Steinberg takes office. Until then, he says, he has “anticipation, but none of the authority.”

He’s not letting that official distinction stop him from an all-out push to have a big part in a crucial upcoming vote: the hiring of the new city manager.

It’s a vital issue to Steinberg because whoever is chosen to run the city day-to-day will have the authority to help or hurt the mayor-elect’s political agenda. An active compatriot – or willing subordinate – in the city manager role could give Steinberg something closer to the strong mayor powers that eluded Johnson at the ballot box and were curtailed by the current city manager, who will step down in November.

A manager with his own agenda – armed with the broad powers the job possesses under the city charter – could undermine Steinberg’s ability to be the regional leader he spoke about during his campaign.

But the hiring is a “closed session” matter. Interviews and discussions are confidential City Council business. Even a mayor-elect is just one of the hoi polloi and can’t be present. Council members and city staff are scrambling to figure out exactly how Steinberg can legally participate in the process and how a largely supportive mayor and City Council can accommodate his inclusion without running afoul of the Brown Act, the California law regulating how legislators conduct business, private and public. In a quirk of law, Steinberg will be subject to the act himself once the election is certified in July but still won’t have any standing to take part in the city’s behind-the-scene affairs.

“That’s just the way the law works,” said assistant city attorney Matthew Ruyak, who has looked into the legalities surrounding the unusually long waiting period between Steinberg’s election and December start. “There is only one mayor at a time, and that is Kevin Johnson.”

Steinberg said that legal limbo or not, he is certain he will be heard.

“I know in the end, not for reasons of power or who’s in charge, but simply that the new mayor and the new city manager are the ones that are going to work most closely together, that ultimately I am going to have the lead,” he said. “I am confident that if I am not enthused or comfortable in the end with a pool of candidates that the city will take its time to make sure we hire the right person.”

The final decision on the hire is made by a council vote, and Steinberg will have to rely on his soon-to-be colleagues to be loyal to his choice. But both Mayor Johnson and the council have signaled strong backing for Steinberg’s request and have a long history of supporting him. Seven of the current council members endorsed his bid for mayor, and Johnson is a political ally. The two worked together to bring the arena deal together, and Steinberg endorsed Measure L, Johnson’s strong-mayor bid, in 2014.

“The mayor is fully committed to making sure Mayor-elect Steinberg participates in the city manager selection process and the final section will have Mayor-elect Steinberg’s endorsement,” said Ben Sosenko, Johnson’s spokesman. “The mayor is regularly conferring with the mayor-elect about the city manager search and the entire transition.”

Steinberg likely will have the opportunity to not only interview candidates on his own outside of the council’s formal meetings, but also to include candidates of his choosing in the pool.

Councilman Jay Schenirer, a member of the council committee that chose the recruitment firm handling the search, said that Steinberg “needs to be involved, so we just have to figure out how to make that happen.”

Councilman Steven Hansen added that “it’s a challenge how we logistically and legally accomplish” that but that “everyone is committed to helping … to plan his administration the way he thinks is right.”

Steinberg asked the city to extend the application acceptance period beyond its current June 30 date. The city said it will keep taking applicants, and recruiter Heather Renschler of search firm Ralph Andersen & Associates said in an email that the posted date was a “soft closing” that was always meant to allow for flexibility.

That gives the mayor-elect more time to round up his own contenders. He said he is “talking to my friends and connections throughout the state and even beyond,” and would look at people with backgrounds outside of city administration.

“I just want to ensure that there is a variety of potential candidates, including nontraditional candidates … who come either from the business community or the nonprofit community,” he said.

Three rounds of interviews will be conducted by the council during the next few months, and a decision could be made as early as September. The new hire would likely not begin until closer to the expected November departure of current City Manager John Shirey.

Shirey said he would be willing to stay longer if an appropriate candidate didn’t materialize. “It’s really not a secret or news that I would stay on,” he said. “This city is near and dear to me.”

Steinberg said that he hopes to have his chosen city manager in place before he drops the hyphen from his title so that he can start implementing his agenda on his first day in office and that he is “assessing the state of the city” through meetings with key staff and others.

“I believe in the first 100 days, first six-month, theory of governance,” he said. “There is a great advantage to having six months to prepare.”

During the race, Steinberg spoke frequently about economic diversity, homelessness and youths. He plans to start working on those issues before he is sworn in.

A key part of that work will be finding ways to partner with local schools and organizations to create career pathways and a “connection between teenagers and this growing modern economy,” he said.

He envisions a renewed commitment to city youths and neighborhood services cut during the recession, which could involve bolstering the existing budget for parks and recreation or creating a new youth-centered city department like one first proposed by Schenirer.

Steinberg, the former president pro tem of the California State Senate, said he sees his job as mayor as an opportunity to put into play many of the ideas and policies he championed at the Capitol.

“It’s a laboratory,” he said of Sacramento. “It’s to connect back all that I’ve done to where I started.”