Politically speaking, Sacramento was a coven of petty rivals who squabbled over small personality disputes for a very long time. City politics were bush league, much to the chagrin of professionals who did business with the city and felt a lack of leadership cost Sacramento development opportunities before the economy collapsed in 2008.
That was the year Kevin Johnson was elected mayor, and right away KJ tried to strengthen his political authority after what had to be a jarring initiation of mind-numbing City Council meetings with a majority of antagonists who had as much power as he did. It was not pretty.
Johnson’s clumsy attempts at securing strong-mayor powers – where his office would control city departments and wield a line-item veto – were shot down so often that he once threw an epic hissy fit with the council cameras rolling. It was cringe-worthy hilarity as KJ fired barbs at most of his council colleagues while smoke practically billowed from his ears.
That was then. Now the strong mayor concept is back after KJ played the leading role in saving the Kings. A refashioned City Council will likely do what past councils would not – put the strong-mayor issue on the ballot for Sacramento voters to decide.
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As a city resident, I have no objection to a public vote on whether Sacramento’s mayor should call many more of the shots. Unlike the proposed downtown arena, which is a land use and financing decision perfectly suited for a vote by council members who are elected to make such calls, the strong mayor issue is a legislative question that would change how the city is governed. Voters should decide if they want that or not.
Quite frankly, I don’t know if I would vote for it. For the first time in a long time, the current council is engaged and has effective members doing good work. John Shirey has been a solid city manager who believes in pumping up the downtown while being unafraid to make tough, belt-tightening choices. Without the strong mayor structure, Sacramento pulled off the coup that was keeping the Kings in town. Johnson did what he does best. He was a dynamic spokesman for Sacramento and a facilitator who found rich people who shared his goals. Though Johnson voted against hiring Shirey, he was a valued partner for KJ – as were other city charter officers who didn’t report solely to Johnson but certainly worked well with him.
The point is, the current system worked. It did so because KJ acted like a leader and displayed the best version of himself. City bureaucrats who previously hadn’t had much good to say about him were inspired by their mayor.
Consequently, strong-mayor proponents are going to have to answer some simple questions: Why do this when the public isn’t clamoring for it – and when the current system can work?
In addition, Shirey will undoubtedly quit if a strong-mayor model is enacted. His contract gives him six months’ severance pay if the city changes its form of governance. That would add greater urgency to the question: Does Sacramento really need this?