City Beat

Strong mayor debate coming back to City Hall

The strong-mayor debate is back at Sacramento City Hall.

A group of prominent political and business leaders presented a plan to the City Council on Tuesday night that would enhance Mayor Kevin Johnson’s powers over top city staff and the budget.

The group, dubbed Sacramento Tomorrow, asked that its plan be debated by the council at a future hearing and placed on the June 2014 ballot. Councilwoman Angelique Ashby agreed to request that City Council hearing, which is scheduled for Oct. 15.

Supporters of the plan said altering the way Sacramento is governed – giving the mayor powers that are similar to those wielded by mayors in other large cities – would modernize the city charter and build off of momentum from recent city developments such as the successful effort to keep the Kings in town.

Erica Bjork, a leader of Metro EDGE, a young professionals organization, said the city charter change would give the mayor the tools to make decisions quicker.

“Decision by committee doesn’t always work,” she said.

Opposition to the measure has already emerged.

Bill Camp, head of the Sacramento Central Labor Council, said granting enhanced powers to the mayor would harm the weight neighborhoods carry with decisions at City Hall.

“We’re taking influence from the people who live in the neighborhoods and essentially giving it to the people who have the money to run an election,” he said.

The proposal – named the 2014 Checks and Balances Act – is similar to a plan pushed by the mayor in 2012. That plan, along with two others, died before reaching the ballot.

As with the 2012 proposal, Johnson’s authority would be increased under the current plan, most importantly through a provision that would allow the mayor to appoint the city manager, pending City Council approval. The mayor could unilaterally remove the city manager.

Approval of the plan could lead to a contentious departure by City Manager John Shirey. When Shirey was hired in 2011, the council agreed to a clause in his contract that allows him to resign and receive a six-month severance should a strong-mayor government be enacted.

Shirey said Tuesday he would step down if a strong-mayor plan is passed.

Approval of the plan would require the mayor to propose the city budget and give the mayor the power to veto budget actions taken by the City Council. The council would approve the budget and could override mayoral vetoes with a super majority vote.

Both the mayor and council members would face limits of serving three consecutive terms (the previous plan placed a limit of two terms on the mayor). A code of ethics and a “sunshine ordinance” promoting open government are part of the new plan.

If passed, the act would “sunset” after five years, requiring a second vote at that time on whether to continue with the change.

The make-up of the City Council has changed since the last strong-mayor debate, and the council is considered to be more willing to place the measure on the ballot. Even those critics who have remained at City Hall appear resigned to the certainty that a strong-mayor plan will appear on the ballot.

“I’m keeping an open mind as I await the proposal, but it appears that the voters of Sacramento might be asked to make some big decisions next year,” said Councilman Kevin McCarty, referring to both a strong-mayor measure and a potential June initiative on whether city subsidies for sports arenas should require voter approval.

Ashby said she wants “to hear from the community whether there is the appetite (to vote on a strong-mayor plan).”

“There seems to be, because people keep bringing it up,” she said. “I want to have the conversation that brings this issue to a close. A vote would do that, a definitive decision to not have a vote would do that, but we need to get to a place where this gets behind us.”

Despite Sacramento Tomorrow’s aims to have the plan appear on the June ballot, recent state legislation may require that it be pushed to the November general election. Under a law set to go into effect Jan. 1, 2014, measures proposing charter changes with impacts on city employees must appear on general election ballots.

As a result, City Attorney James Sanchez said it was his initial belief that the measure would need to appear on the November ballot, but he said that his office would analyze the issue.

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