Marcos Bretón

Strong-mayor initiative is not about a ‘power grab’

Then-Mayor Heather Fargo and Kevin Johnson have their final debate during the 2008 election cycle.
Then-Mayor Heather Fargo and Kevin Johnson have their final debate during the 2008 election cycle.

Giving the mayor of Sacramento more authority is not a “power grab.” It’s what many other cities have already done to connect municipal authority to the people elected by voters.

But opponents of Measure L, the ballot initiative that would strengthen mayoral authority, are calling it a “power grab” to scare voters.

It’s an effective political slogan in a year of low voter interest. To voters who may not know the issue or its complexity and history, “Stop the Power Grab” creates the illusion that big, bad Mayor Kevin Johnson is trying to seize power in a way that would imperil Sacramento.

The ultimate irony is that a lead voice in the “Stop the Power Grab” chorus is former Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo – whom Johnson defeated in 2008.

So, let’s talk about a power grab that really happened.

About a year before the 2008 election, most of the Sacramento City Council acquiesced to Fargo’s bid for a record third term as mayor and endorsed her candidacy.

This effectively cleared the field of any real challengers to Fargo – at least any that could have been imagined at that point. This was all about deciding the 2008 mayoral election long before it ever got to voters.

Yes, it was a power grab. Fargo and her council supporters would sort out the order of future mayoral ascension between them.

But unlike Measure L, voters were not consulted. This power grab was decided by a cliquish club of politicos and their sponsors who controlled Sacramento politics at the time.

This had a tangible effect on city business.

The council pecking orders and political factions that remained after Fargo’s departure undermined the poor saps who had the misfortune of being city manager back then.

While Johnson burst the bubble of the old cliques by running and winning in 2008, Sacramento was ground to a halt afterward by the economic recession and a political tug of war between the new mayor and the old way of doing business in Sacramento.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that two former city managers – Ray Kerridge and Gus Vina – got their hands caught in the machinery of warring interests.

The dynamic didn’t change until Johnson’s old antagonists began to leave the council and were replaced by new blood no longer consumed by the old rules.

Re-elected in 2012, Johnson spearheaded the effort to keep the Kings in Sacramento, new investment is coming to downtown, and the City Council is functioning much better.

So why approve Measure L if the city has progressed? Isn’t John Shirey, the current city manager, doing a good job?

He’s doing a terrific job, but the strong-mayor issue transcends personalities and should be about positioning Sacramento for the future.

Even today, with financial index numbers just inching back to pre-recession levels, Sacramento’s housing market is worryingly soft and the city has big needs.

“We would like to see more high-end jobs,” said Sanjay Varshney, professor of finance at Sacramento State and chief economist for the Sacramento Business Review.

Varshney said cities have to be nimble and aggressive to attract businesses and their jobs.

“In China, cities are charged with leading the effort to go out and find the right partners,” Varshney said. “You can’t open the Wall Street Journal without seeing different cities compete with each other.”

While Sacramento’s jobless rate dropped to 6.6 percent from 6.9 percent last week, the actual numbers illustrate how Sacramento takes a few steps forward while taking a few steps back,

“In Sacramento, the education sector added 3,900 jobs in September as schools went back into session. But the leisure and hospitality sector lost 3,700 jobs,” Bee reporter Dale Kasler wrote. “Job losses in (the leisure) industry are typical in September, although this was a greater decline than usual, according to Employment Development Department.”

The feeling among Sacramento business leaders is that the city is too slow to move the needle on a still-tepid economy.

Sacramento’s political system needs to give the mayor more authority because the current system creates lethargy.

Shirey runs city operations, but the voters did not elect him. Consequently, he has to be careful not to appear to be too aggressive on city objectives or run afoul of the nine members of the council who supervise him.

Meanwhile, the eight council members and the mayor in Shirey’s ear don’t have the authority to direct city staff without going through Shirey and the proper channels.

If Measure L were passed, the city manager would still run operations – but he or she would report to the mayor, the one official elected by voters citywide.

The mayor would have direct impact on policy and operations without having to fear tripping over outdated lines of authority between the city manager and elected officials.

Though Varshney is not a city resident and is therefore neutral on Measure L, his point is still the same: Sacramento has to compete to diversify its economy – or suffer the consequences.

The economic issues facing Sacramento will not go away and should be bigger than misleading slogans like “Stop the Power Grab” that only distract from what Sacramento needs most of all – a system to bolster a still-sagging economy by competing more effectively in a more complex future.

Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.