In the looming public vote to change how Sacramento is governed by switching more authority to the mayor, opponents utilize the same weapon: Fear.
They fear that giving budget, veto and hiring power to Mayor Kevin Johnson will create a system of patronage and corruption.
They fear that some neighborhoods will be shut out while others will be favored.
They fear a fiscal calamity in a Sacramento without enough checks and balances to power.
While such concerns are legitimate, something interesting happens when looking at cities where a lack of oversight resulted in actual harm.
Stockton and Vallejo – cities that went bankrupt – most acutely have experienced the fears expressed by opponents of the Sacramento ballot initiative known as Measure L.
But Stockton and Vallejo are not governed by the system that Measure L opponents fear, one where the mayor calls the shots.
They are run by city managers – professional administrators who control day-to-day operations just as city managers have in Sacramento for generations.
Despite the way the opposition frames Measure L, corruption can happen under any system.
A recent audit of Stockton’s financial collapse by state Controller John Chiang found that few controls were in place as the city dug itself deeper into debt.
It didn’t matter that Stockton’s city manager called the shots and the mayor did not.
What mattered was that the majority of elected and nonelected leaders of Stockton made unsustainable pension obligations to public safety and other city employees.
Stockton kept right on rolling until it couldn’t pay bills anymore.
If you read Chiang’s report, what screams out is the lack of accountability by anyone.
In Stockton, the buck stopped nowhere. Stockton officials were the given the chance to offer rebuttals within the pages of Chiang’s report and did.
They typically gave two types of responses: “This is old news” or “We disagree.”
Great. You disagree, but you’re still bankrupt and the Police Department is woefully understaffed, city services were gutted and you’re in court fighting over city obligations.
To be fair, opponents of Measure L also argue that the current Sacramento City Council and city manager are working well together. Why fix something that isn’t broken?
OK, but a few years ago the council was dysfunctional to the point of being broken. Before John Shirey, there was a revolving door of city managers unable to function in a power vacuum.
You want to talk about neighborhoods being ignored? Not long ago, when redrawing council lines, a majority of the City Council turned aside the pleas of Councilman Jay Schenirer and his Oak Park constituents and removed the UC Davis Medical Center from his district.
It was ugly. It happened under the current system. Nothing could be done about it.
So what’s the cautionary tale for Sacramento? Pay attention to your city or suffer the consequences no matter the political system in place.