City Beat

Would strong mayor be good for Sacramento? Experts say it depends

A new ad by Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson touts Measure L.
A new ad by Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson touts Measure L. Sacramento Bee file

In a television ad released last week, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson makes his pitch for the strong-mayor November ballot measure.

“Sacramento’s on the move, but we can do even better,” the mayor says as an image of the downtown skyline fills the screen. “Measure L will help.”

Political analysts, academics and elected officials who study city government said Johnson’s strong-mayor plan would likely make the city move. But the direction of that movement – and whether it would be a good thing for Sacramento – could depend upon who is occupying the mayor’s seat.

“It’s ultimately an act of faith to create a strong mayor,” said Jessica Levinson, an elections expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “It’s one of those instances where if people like the mayor, they want him or her to be a strong mayor. And that system can be more efficient, but if you pick someone who is a dithering idiot and is the essence of inefficiency, then no, it doesn’t work.”

That sentiment has been a key wedge in the debate surrounding Measure L.

Opponents of the measure say Johnson’s “romantic vision” for future mayors is a key reason to vote against the proposal. They often raise the specter of strong mayors in places such as Oakland, San Diego and Toronto who have either struggled or been outright disasters. And they say Johnson and other Sacramento mayors have thrived under the current system.

Councilman Steve Hansen, a leader of the opposition campaign, said the measure’s supporters are ignoring the potential pitfalls of the future.

“It’s naive to say there’s no chance we would get a bad mayor because the evidence is out there that there have been bad mayors in other cities that have caused real harm,” Hansen said. “To ignore that would be to deny reality.”

Michelle Rhee, the mayor’s wife and former head of national education advocacy group StudentsFirst, said during a recent interview that none of the strong-mayor cities that have encountered scandals “are clamoring to go back to the weak-mayor system. The system was not to blame.”

Rhee and others also argue that Hansen’s warning about future mayors represents a pessimistic point of view.

“You have to make sure you have really good people in place,” Rhee said. “Sacramento has a history of electing great mayors. Why all of a sudden do you think with this change (Measure L) that this city is going to start electing bad people? If anything, this will entice more high-quality people to run.”

That argument is based upon the amount of power Measure L is proposing for the mayor, which supporters argue is line with most big cities. Under the plan, the mayor would have the authority to appoint and fire the city manager, essentially inheriting many of the day-to-day decisions currently enjoyed by the city’s top appointed executive. In doing so, the mayor – not the city manager – would be directly accountable to the voters for the state of the city, supporters argue.

Sacramento has been governed by what’s called a city council-city manager system for nearly 100 years. In the system, the city manager is appointed and removed by the City Council, and the mayor has, in effect, the same powers as the eight members of the council.

Those in academia with an expertise in local government policy tend to speak favorably of that setup. They argue it breeds an apolitical system at city halls based less on personalities, and that with capable leaders, cities can thrive under either form of government. Defenders of the system also argue that city managers are accountable; if they aren’t effective, they will be fired by the City Council.

A citywide perspective

Measure L’s list of supporters includes some individuals working in city halls around the state, including four current members of the Sacramento City Council and another council member who will take office later this year. The mayors of Philadelphia, Houston, Baltimore and New Orleans have also expressed support for the measure. Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, is a major donor to the campaign.

Three Sacramento council members oppose the measure, along with former Councilwoman Bonnie Pannell and former Mayors Heather Fargo and Anne Rudin.

Supporters argue that strong-mayor systems require mayors who are capable of being effective politicians and that the form of government being proposed helps to promote elected leaders with citywide perspectives.

Larry Reid, a city councilman in Oakland who had been critical of that city’s switch to a strong-mayor system in 1998, said he now supports his city’s strong-mayor governing system because it forces the mayor to be a counterbalance to the City Council.

“The mayor in Oakland cannot do anything unless she sits down with the president of the City Council in an effort to put together five votes (on the City Council to pass proposals),” he said.

The Measure L campaign has also garnered the support of some top city executives, including Ray Kerridge, a former Sacramento city manager and now the top executive in the city of Roseville, and Naomi Kelly, the chief administrative officer in San Francisco.

Another supporter is Bruce Rudd, who has worked for the city of Fresno for 38 years and is the current city manager. He was the head of the city’s transportation department when Fresno switched to a strong-mayor government in 1997. Rudd said that the strong mayor in Fresno has given the city an elected leader with a citywide perspective.

“You have somebody now who has to look at the entire field,” he said. “At times, under council-manager, priorities sometimes from a citywide perspective don’t compete as well. City Council members tend to look at what is the most important issue to their districts rather than the community as a whole.”

Kris Michell also worked under both systems. She was a top aide to former San Diego Mayor Susan Golding under a “weak-mayor” system, then served as chief of staff to former Mayor Jerry Sanders after San Diego switched to a strong-mayor government in 2006.

Michell, now head of the Downtown San Diego Partnership, agreed with Rudd that strong-mayor systems are more effective at addressing citywide issues.

“The challenge (under the old system) was how do we get everyone on the City Council to focus on things that may not be in their backyard and won’t get them re-elected,” Michell said. “The city manager was the only person who saw the whole field of play, and the voters had no say whether that person stays or goes.”

Mayor’s priorities set city direction

An effective mayor capable of tackling citywide issues and long-term goals can also thrive in the council-manager systems like the one Sacramento has now, academics and critics said.

James Svara, a professor emeritus of public affairs at Arizona State University who has written extensively about city governance, said the council-manager government doesn’t limit the success of mayors in other big cities.

Phoenix, San Antonio, Dallas, San Jose and Charlotte, N.C., are governed by so-called “weak-mayor” systems, but have had mayors who were “effective as visionaries,” he said. The big cities with council-manager governments also tend to commit more often to long-term citywide goals such as improving public transportation systems, Svara said.

In strong-mayor cities, the path depends upon the mayor’s priorities – and those priorities can often be based on the mayor’s political tendencies and effectiveness, he said.

“In a strong-mayor system, you put a lot of leadership eggs into one basket,” Svara said. “The mayor has to have good ideas, be effective at running a large organization, meet the political demands of the office and deal with constituents.”

Janet Denhardt, a professor of public administration and the director of the USC Price School in Sacramento, studied the case of Mayor Phil Gordon of Phoenix in 2006. While Phoenix is the largest American city governed by a council-manager government, Gordon helped spark key downtown redevelopment projects and led a city that was recognized for its effective management.

“The power of the mayor isn’t based on the structure of government,” Denhardt said. “It’s based on his or her ability to lead public opinion, create energy around ideas and be a true leader.”

“I think we may have (someone with those qualities) in this case,” she said, referring to Mayor Johnson.

Paula Lee, head of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, said during a campaign forum last week that “Sacramento has a history of strong mayors, and our city government is working just fine.”

“We have Kevin Johnson, a very strong mayor,” she said. “And this current system does not prevent these strong mayors from getting things done.”

Both supporters and critics said that strong-mayor systems can lead to quick changes in a city’s direction and priorities. That could explain why some of the cities that have made the change – including San Diego and Oakland – did so during times of scandal or dysfunction.

“If you’re trying to make radical changes, then the strong mayor can make that happen a little bit easier,” Denhardt said.

Call The Bee’s Ryan Lillis, (916) 321-1085. Read his City Beat blog at

Related stories from Sacramento Bee