Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen, not even two years into his first term at City Hall, is about to take on a popular mayor and many of the city’s most powerful interest groups in a closely watched political battle over how the city will be governed.
Hansen said Monday he is launching a political committee that will seek to defeat a November ballot measure pushed by Mayor Kevin Johnson that would vastly increase the authority of the mayor’s office. In doing so, Hansen instantly became the new face of an opposition campaign that until now had been led largely by labor unions and Democratic Party activists.
Sitting outside a midtown coffee shop, Hansen said “concentrating so much power in one office is not what we need in Sacramento.” He said he would call his campaign “Stop the Power Grab.”
“I don’t think (Johnson’s plan is) necessary, and it’s clear the voters don’t think it’s necessary either,” Hansen said. “They see it as a power grab, especially given that the current system is working.”
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Hansen, 34, was elected to office in 2012 to represent the central city, Land Park and a slice of South Natomas. Since then, he has voted with the mayor on the most controversial issues to face the City Council.
Hansen voted in favor of a $255 million city contribution to a new downtown arena, supported easing restrictions on “big box” superstores in the city and voted to approve the McKinley Village housing development in East Sacramento. Johnson supported all three proposals.
“We largely share the same vision,” Hansen said.
But Hansen has been consistent in his opposition to a strong-mayor plan.
A spokesman for Sacramento Tomorrow, the campaign supporting Johnson’s measure, said he wasn’t surprised Hansen planned to campaign against it. Hansen was one of four council members to vote unsuccessfully against placing the measure on the ballot.
“There are always people who want to maintain the status quo and stop efforts to change business as usual,” campaign spokesman Josh Wood said.
The plan is dubbed the Checks and Balances Act of 2014 and will appear on the November ballot as Measure L.
If it’s approved, the mayor would obtain the power to appoint and remove the city manager, who in turn would oversee the hiring and firing of key city officials. The mayor’s choice of a city manager would still require City Council approval. However, the mayor could unilaterally remove the city manager.
The mayor also would have the ability to propose the city budget, a power currently held by the city manager.
Some limited City Council actions would be susceptible to mayoral vetoes under the plan, including budget decisions. The City Council could override those vetoes, but only with a supermajority vote of six of eight council members.
An ethics committee and neighborhood advisory committee would also be formed.
The form of government is similar to those in many large cities. Supporters argue it makes the mayor more accountable to voters.
Hansen said he has begun recruiting neighborhood and civic leaders to join his campaign. He said he has raised roughly $39,000 so far to launch the effort from the International City Managers Association.
The League of Women Voters and the Democratic Party of Sacramento County have also expressed opposition to the plan. Kerri Asbury, chair of the Democratic Party, said her organization would work with Hansen. “We’re all on the same page,” she said.
Hansen said a poll he commissioned this summer showed nearly two-thirds of voters oppose Johnson’s proposal. While the exact text of the poll and the questions asked were not released, a memo that accompanied the survey showed that 62 percent of likely November voters do not want to grant the mayor the powers he is seeking.
David Binder, whose firm conducted the survey of 500 city voters, said the poll showed that while voters largely approve of the job Johnson is doing in office, they disagree with his strong-mayor proposal. He said 42 percent of those polled said they were certain to vote against the plan and will not consider changing their minds.
“That’s a pretty high number,” he said. “That will make it very, very difficult for the other side to prevail.”
Johnson’s camp is expected to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on its campaign. Sacramento Tomorrow reported raising $90,000 through the first six months of this year, including a $45,000 check from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Some local building trades unions and business groups have already voiced support for the plan. “There will be a broad coalition of people from all different political perspectives who believe it’s time for us to reform our government and improve the system we have into a system that is proven to work,” Wood said.
Doug Elmets, a Sacramento political consultant, said the campaign will serve as a litmus test on how efficiently the city is being run.
“The mayor has to make the case that the current system is clearly an impediment to running a successful, world-class city,” Elmets said. “And Steve Hansen needs to convince the electorate that the way the government is operating today is sufficient with the existing checks and balances.”