Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Kevin Johnson seeks to strengthen his office – does Sacramento care?

Marcos Breton
Marcos Breton

Despite national acclaim, Mayor Kevin Johnson faces his most formidable foe of all right now – one with the power to pour cold water on him and his political legacy.

This foe is apathy. It’s voters who have no idea how the city works or that KJ has less power than a bureaucrat whose name I bet you don’t know.

Answer this: Who is the city manager of Sacramento? It’s not an exaggeration to say a fair number of voters would shrug their shoulders at that question.

You may even think that KJ already has more power than any other council member, or that he has more power than that city manager you never heard of. He doesn’t.

A national figure, Kevin Johnson has been comfortably elected by the entire city – twice. Yet, with a few exceptions, he has little more authority than eight council members elected by one-eighth of the city.

That city manager you might not know – his name is John Shirey, and a fine chap he is – earns $364,712 and has roughly 4,000 city employees reporting to him. The mayor’s job pays $117,861, and he has six employees.

When its budget time, it’s Shirey who presents his plan to Johnson and the council – not the other way around.

If you want to remove the city manager of Sacramento, it takes six votes to do it – whether the citywide elected mayor is one of those votes or not. The mayor of Sacramento has no veto power.

Most major cities have already switched to a system where the elected mayor is also the top executive. Sacramento is an outlier because there hasn’t been a political scandal that has angered the voting public enough to change how the city works. KJ is an outlier in his own hometown because of his celebrity CEO style in a town of wonks. It’s a complicated relationship.

Supporters of Measure L want to make the mayor the chief executive who presents the budget and has veto power. If Measure L passes in November, the city manager would no longer report to the entire council, but to the mayor.

The challenge for Measure L supporters is getting people to care about these things and extricating policy issues from the image of KJ – which remains divisive among some.

Those in favor of Measure L say it will enhance democracy in Sacramento by making the city’s leader directly responsible to voters. Those against Measure L argue that giving elected politicians more power to hire, fire and spend will promote corruption and patronage. They argue for keeping the most authority with the bureaucrat who is not elected by voters.

Is opposing Measure L actually opposing enhanced democracy? That would be a great debate to have. But the greater risk for KJ’s long-deferred political objective is finding people who care enough to debate the question at all.

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