Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: A strong mayor system has strong arguments

Changing the way Sacramento governs itself and bestowing more authority on the office of the mayor have very reasonable arguments.

They haven’t been made very well so far because they are nuanced and can’t be distilled into sound bites. Consequently, the campaign in support of Measure L – the November ballot initiative also known by the euphemism of “strong mayor” – has struggled to get its message to voters.

Absentee ballots arrive this week, but I would never tell you how you should vote on anything. I will tell you this: I’ve gone from skeptic to supporter of Measure L – and one reason has nothing to do with the mayor.

“The popular phrase for this ballot initiative is strong mayor, but what no one has really talked about is that it has the real potential to strengthen the City Council as well,” said Darrell Steinberg, former Sacramento councilman and the outgoing leader of the state Senate.

“The City Council under this would have a president and would increase its own identity and its own power. When you have two forces of power pushing and pushing each other, you have the greater likelihood that you are going to produce more.”

Moreover, the mayor of Sacramento is the only official elected citywide and yet has no corresponding authority attached to the will of the voters.

Mayor Kevin Johnson can talk about making public safety a priority, but he doesn’t select Sacramento’s chief of police. City Manager John Shirey tabbed Chief Sam Somers for his post. And according to Johnson, Shirey really didn’t consult with him about Somers in any meaningful way.

When Johnson is in Washington, D.C., as the head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, he can’t directly mobilize city staff to pursue federal grants or other opportunities.

Why? City staff works for Shirey, even though Sacramento voters may believe otherwise.

On the nine-person City Council, the mayor of Sacramento has little more authority than council colleagues elected only in their own districts.

Most major cities in California and throughout the U.S. have already switched to an executive mayor system.

If Measure L were passed, a city manager will still run the day-to-day operations of the city. The only differences will be these: The city manager will report directly to the mayor instead of the entire council as he does now. And the mayor will be able to dismiss the city manager, whereas the current system requires six council votes to remove the city manager.

If Measure L were passed and Sacramento voters got buyer’s remorse, city residents could vote again to strip the mayor of these enhanced powers in six years.

None of this would be controversial if you removed Mayor KJ from the equation.

But he has a way of turning a wonkish debate into an emotional one.

Several – not all, but several – of the more visible Measure L opponents have been KJ adversaries for a long time now. Former Mayor Heather Fargo, whom Johnson defeated in 2008, is joined in this group by a local plumbers union that has been trying to beat KJ since he first ran for office. The Democratic Party of Sacramento has never liked KJ – and the group Eye on Sacramento had been a vocal critic of the downtown arena championed by KJ.

Opponents say it’s not personal, but that’s hard to believe because some prominent Measure L opponents have been KJ’s adversaries for nearly a decade now.

Of course, not all Measure L opponents are adversaries. But their arguments are largely based on the supposition that bad things will happen if you hand more authority to the one person elected by the entire city. It’s a negative argument.

The biggest concern I once had was that running things was not KJ’s strong suit when he led St. Hope Public Schools. He’s an idea guy, not a detail guy. St. Hope had accounting problems, personnel issues and ran better when Johnson wasn’t in charge.

“At St. Hope, we didn’t have the capacity,” Johnson said. “We were a nonprofit running on a shoestring budget. But the city has the capacity. You’d still have a city manager making sure the trains run on time.”

As a voter, the other issue I had was that Sacramento is running relatively well, so why change things?

This rebuttal to Measure L sounds good, but it’s ultimately a shortsighted argument. The city is running better now, but was running terribly four years ago with a dysfunctional council and several changes in city managers.

One of the best arguments that Johnson makes – one backed by business leaders – is that voters don’t know how many business opportunities for Sacramento were squandered in that time frame.

But the biggest reason I moved away from Measure L opponents is the way they have directly and indirectly disparaged a local business community supporting Measure L. If there is one thing Sacramento needs, it is a more robust business community where jobs are created.

Opponents of Measure L make it seem like evil big business will buy influence if Measure L is passed. OK, what about the plumbers buying influence? What about other unions that controlled past council members?

Johnson has two critical goals in mind to occupy whatever time he has left as mayor: to make investing in Sacramento easier and to bring more diversity to Sacramento’s Police Department.

With the passage of Measure L, he could directly align city staffs with those goals instead of just talking about them.

But this is bigger than KJ. It’s about the future of Sacramento as it evolves. It’s about trying to make things better rather than being afraid to try.