Now that Kevin Johnson has left City Hall, it’s time to revisit the “strong mayor” concept for Sacramento.
Other major California cities long ago decided that the mayor would be the chief city executive because it made sense to connect budget and managerial authority to the person elected citywide by voters. But doing so in Sacramento became all but impossible when Johnson was around because discussions about efficiency and accountability in city government eventually ended up being about Johnson himself.
Johnson’s political opponents succeeded in scaring people into thinking that sinister deeds were imminent if Johnson were to become fully empowered as mayor. The campaign language from two years ago, when a “strong mayor” initiative called Measure L was on the ballot, is almost laughable in hindsight.
Measure L “allows professional and independent city management to be replaced by the politics of whim and favoritism,” wrote the measure’s opponents, whose campaign was dramatically dubbed “Stop the Power Grab.”
The irony of that statement must be emphasized again and again. One of the biggest black eyes on our city government in recent years was the result of actions by “professional” city management who were not elected by anyone.
Sacramento police shot and killed a mentally ill person named Joseph Mann on July 11 in North Sacramento. Then-City Manager John Shirey – who had budget and managerial authority that the mayor doesn’t have – worked with other unelected managers, including then-Police Chief Sam Somers and City Attorney James Sanchez, to withhold video of the officers trying to run Mann over with their patrol car before they shot him 14 times.
Those same unelected managers then made sure that the aftermath of the shooting would play out in secrecy. The city recently got a protective order to conceal all documents related to the legal settlement of the case.
In other words, “professional” and unelected managers did exactly what Johnson opponents feared he would do. They worked behind closed doors to keep relevant information from the public.
Doesn’t that sound like a power grab? Don’t those actions run counter to the another statement made by the “Stop the Power Grab” crowd? To wit: “Measure L doesn’t create checks and balances. It erases them.”
Where are the checks and balances for a public concerned about a questionable use of lethal force by police?
In recent months, protesters concerned by the Mann shooting packed the council chambers and vented their frustrations at elected officials. But they were focusing on the wrong people. There is a disconnect between accountability and power in Sacramento that plays out in ways that leave the public little recourse, and the Mann shooting is but one example.
Cities have to compete more than ever to attract jobs and industries. In Johnson, Sacramento had a mayor uniquely positioned to trade on his business contacts for the good of the city. But he had no direct authority over city employees working toward creating business opportunities for Sacramento – Shirey did. Johnson was known to have a poor working relationship with Shirey, and he spent his final days in office lamenting that he didn’t work more with city employees.
That was a lost opportunity for Sacramento. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Fresno, Oakland and San Diego all empower the mayor to be the definitive voice and force for each city. The only reason Sacramento hasn’t followed suit – and Measure L failed – is that enough people didn’t like Johnson and didn’t want him to have that authority. Approximately 100,000 people – roughly 30 percent of city voters – cast ballots for Measure L in a 2014 general election that saw record low voter turnouts.
Johnson ran a terrible “yes” campaign for Measure L, and his opponents convinced enough people leery of Johnson to vote no by using rhetoric that appealed to the lowest common denominator. It honestly felt like a high school election at times. Or our recent presidential election.
Darrell Steinberg’s mayoral win in June came with one of the highest vote totals in city history. Steinberg is arguably the most accomplished politician ever to become mayor of Sacramento, having been leader of the state Senate for six years and a state legislator for 14 years.
As he settles into his new office, Steinberg does so with the legislative chops to tackle homelessness and the ability to leverage money for Sacramento from a state Capitol ruled by Democratic supermajorities he helped to create. He’s already working to lure tech jobs from they Bay Area to Sacramento. Why wouldn’t Sacramento want Steinberg – the only local politician elected citywide – to have the full breadth of city government at his disposal?
Quick: Can you name who succeeded Shirey as city manager without looking it up? I’d bet many can’t, and that’s the point. Sacramento’s city manager is like a relic from a time when ours was a small town. And that manager has more budget authority than the mayor, and hires key people, including the police chief.
I’ve heard that interim City Manager Howard Chan is a good guy, but I didn’t vote for him. And now, more than ever, Sacramento has to get it right when it hires its next police chief. It can’t be another chief who thinks it’s OK to conceal information from the public. It can’t be another chief who operates from a 1980s playbook. It has to be a chief who understands social media and how to communicate quickly and directly with a concerned public.
Voters should want Steinberg to be the most important voice in picking that chief because voters picked Steinberg. There shouldn’t ever be council meetings in which the public is trying to hold politicians accountable, but it’s bureaucrats they’ve never heard of who wield the most authority.
Steinberg rightly has said that enhancing his office can’t be a priority right away. That’s why other people – business, community and civic leaders – need to pick up the campaign for him and make the right argument this time.
Sacramento is a big city now with big opportunities at hand. It’s time the lead voice in pursuing those opportunities was the person Sacramento elected to its most prestigious office.