City Beat

Sacramento strong-mayor campaign races to the finish line

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson installs a lawn sign while campaigning door-to-door for Measure L in Sacramento on Saturday.
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson installs a lawn sign while campaigning door-to-door for Measure L in Sacramento on Saturday.

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson spent an hour Thursday engaged in a lively exchange with the folks at the Pioneer House senior home in downtown, stumping for his strong-mayor plan. After that, he moved on to the patio of a stylish midtown restaurant to mingle with a bunch of 30-somethings.

Later that night, campaign offices on both sides of the strong-mayor debate were jammed with volunteers making phone calls as lawn signs were handed out by the hundreds. There was talk that someone had rented an airplane to drag a banner through the sky urging residents to vote no.

This is what the final days of Sacramento’s strong-mayor campaign look like. After nearly six years of debating the topic, city residents will vote Tuesday on whether to grant their mayor more power. It has been the signature issue of Johnson’s political career, one he has been talking about since first running for office in 2008.

“I think people find that it’s time, that this is the logical next step for this city to modernize,” Johnson said, moments before walking onto the patio at LowBrau restaurant to meet with nearly 40 young professionals.

Under the governing system in place at City Hall, many of the day-to-day decisions are made by a city manager appointed by the nine members of the City Council. Johnson’s plan – Measure L – would allow the mayor to appoint and remove the city manager, essentially transferring daily management of the city to the mayor’s office.

Four California cities have adopted similar forms of government in the past 20 years: Oakland, San Diego, Fresno and Los Angeles. Many large cities operate under strong-mayor systems, but some others do not, including San Jose, Phoenix, Portland, Ore., and Dallas.

Opponents argue the system isn’t right for Sacramento. The primary argument made by the campaign trying to defeat the measure is that the system concentrates too much power in the hands of one elected official and amounts to a “power grab” by Johnson.

Jim Hard, one of about 35 volunteers making phone calls on behalf of the opposition Thursday night, said many people he’s spoken with “think progress has been made in Sacramento and they don’t see the need (for the change).”

“People are optimistic,” he said. “They don’t think we’re in dire straits.”

Johnson’s message has been that the city is performing well, but that a strong-mayor system would allow its government to be more nimble by concentrating many decisions with the only official elected citywide, rather than with a city manager who answers to nine bosses. “When people start to understand it, they think it’s a no-brainer,” Johnson said.

Throughout a busy Thursday afternoon, Johnson had two things to say everywhere he went.

First, he urged people to get out and vote. The Measure L campaign is worried that low voter turnout Tuesday will hurt the cause. Traditionally, the local voters who go to the polls in a low-turnout election tend to be older residents and people living in neighborhoods close to the city’s core – two demographics the mayor has struggled to attract. Higher turnout – particularly among voters under age 50 and residents in the city’s outer neighborhoods – could help the measure.

During an interview on Spanish-language radio station 92.1 FM La Buena, Johnson told talk show host Jesus Garcia that the Latino community “has got to come out and vote.”

“If you come out and vote, we know it’s going to pass,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s messaging has begun to focus on the measure’s “sunset” provision. If the measure passes, the citizenry would vote again in 2020 to determine whether the change should be permanent.

That message resonated with many of the nearly 50 residents of the Pioneer House who attended a casual forum with Johnson. “It sounds like something that we ought to give a try,” said resident Mary Grundmann. “They’ve had this way of doing things here for so many years.”

Most of those who attended the meeting seemed supportive. “I think the mayor should have more say and more input,” said Elizabeth Marshment.

But not everyone was convinced. Hoover Ebbert, who said he already has voted against the measure via absentee ballot, said Johnson has done a lot of things he disagrees with, including promoting construction of a downtown sports arena.

“What in the world are you going to do if this passes?” he asked the mayor. “That scares the hell out of me.”

As they sipped craft beer and glanced at their smartphones, the young professionals who attended the event at LowBrau also asked Johnson what he would do as a strong mayor. Johnson said he would work to foster a business climate that attracts more start-ups and would advocate for expansion of light rail. But first, he said, he needs the group to show up at the polls.

“Don’t let me down,” the mayor told the crowd.

Christine Endres, a marketing coordinator for an engineering firm, said her generation is probably willing to “try the system out.” And she said many people her age likely think Johnson is already an executive mayor.

“Most voters and people who aren’t in local politics think the mayor already makes all of the decisions,” she said.

Her generation is not of one mind, however. Jason Orta was among the volunteers calling voters on Thursday from the headquarters of the Democratic Party of Sacramento, a lead opponent of MeasureL. Orta, who is 36, said he voted for Johnson in 2008 but disagrees with him on this issue.

“People just don’t seem interested in expanding the powers of the mayor,” Orta said. “They’re concerned about decisions being made behind closed doors and that the mayor would no longer be at City Council meetings.”

Orta said he’s made calls for at least 15 hours this month. On Thursday, the group calling voters filled every table inside the Democratic Party office, as well as two tables outside. The crowd included local Democratic activists and members of the League of Women Voters.

Opponents have been critical of the amount of money raised by the Measure L campaign. Two committees aligned with the pro-campaign have combined to raise more than $1.1million, while Stop the Power Grab – the opposition campaign – has collected $223,000, according to the most recent campaign finance reports filed with the city clerk’s office.

Major donations to the pro-campaign have come from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, prominent Sacramento developer Angelo K. Tsakopoulos, Sacramento Republic FC lead investor Kevin Nagle and Silicon Valley executive Laurene Powell Jobs.

“I hear it in all the neighborhoods we’ve been in: People truly don’t think Measure L is necessary and they don’t want Sacramento to be commodified through all this big money,” said Councilman Steve Hansen, lead spokesman for the opposition. “There is a genuine fear that their voice will be marginalized in a system that is top down and where you have to have money to be heard.”

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

Measure L key elements

▪  Mayor is no longer a member of the City Council and is not required to attend meetings, but can. City Council elects a president and vice president.

▪  Mayor appoints city manager, pending approval of City Council.

▪  Mayor can remove city manager unilaterally.

▪  Mayor proposes budget. (Currently, city manager proposes budget)

▪  Mayor can veto most ordinances and budget decisions passed by the City Council. Council can override vetoes with a vote of six of eight members.

▪  City Council appoints city clerk, city attorney and city treasurer.

▪  Citizens commission would be responsible for drawing boundaries for City Council districts every 10 years.

▪  City Council would form neighborhood advisory and ethics committees.

Major endorsements

Supporters: Mayor Kevin Johnson; Sacramento Police Officers Association; Sacramento Firefighters, Local 522; Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones; Sen. Darrell Steinberg; council members Angelique Ashby, Allen Warren, Steve Cohn, Jay Schenirer; Laborers Local 185; Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce

Opponents: Council members Steve Hansen, Kevin McCarty, Darrell Fong; former Mayors Heather Fargo, Anne Rudin; former council members Bonnie Pannell, Ray Tretheway, Sandy Sheedy; Democratic Party of Sacramento County; League of Women Voters; Southside Park, Marshall School/New Era Park, Midtown, Newton Booth and Sierra Curtis neighborhood associations.

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