Kevin Johnson strode into a midtown loft building Wednesday evening, an entourage of handlers by his side.
Inside the sparsely decorated room, the Sacramento mayor hugged and chatted with the 50 or so supporters who had come to celebrate the unofficial launch of the biggest political campaign this city has seen in years: Johnson’s proposal to boost the authority of the mayor’s office through a November strong-mayor ballot measure.
The president of the firefighters union stood in one corner, not far from a high-ranking officer in the police union. A handful of developers were there, along with the head of the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce.
They snacked on small sandwiches as they mingled in a building on 16th Street owned by developer and Sacramento Kings minority owner Mark Friedman, who has contributed more than $14,000 to the strong-mayor campaign. The party was funded out of the $240,000 the campaign has already raised, including $100,000 from Angelo K. Tsakopoulos, the region’s leading land developer.
Sacramento’s power players are lining up to support Johnson’s proposal to consolidate more clout in the mayor’s office. In doing so, they’re seeking a cleaner, easier path to getting things done at City Hall.
“Most of the people that get involved in these things are players, they’re not just average people, and they are doing business with the city and are in tune with what’s going on at City Hall,” said Sacramento political consultant Andrew Acosta. “For a lot of these people, they want to have the ability to know exactly who they need to talk to to get something done. And they’d rather have one conversation (with the mayor) than eight (with the City Council).”
Opponents of Johnson’s plan, including City Councilman Steve Hansen, worry that the system would favor “the privileged and the wealthy.” Their campaign is likely to be outspent by a wide margin.
For years, the city’s business interests, developers and some unions have complained about having to maneuver through what they describe as a sluggish bureaucracy where a city manager appointed by the City Council calls most of the shots. To get something done, they often have to convince at least five City Council members, which can take a lot of time and money.
A strong-mayor government, such as the one Johnson is proposing, makes City Hall more of a one-stop shop. The mayor contends the new structure would give voters and interest groups alike a clear understanding of who is in charge, and the ability to hold that person accountable.
“(Voters) want the buck to stop somewhere,” Johnson said following Wednesday’s campaign launch. He told supporters that the current system resembles “half-democracy.”
“The people in Sacramento, when you cast your vote, you think you’re casting your vote for a mayor who has the ability to hire a police chief or somebody for the Fire Department,” he said. “That is not true.”
If the ballot measure passes, the city manager would answer to Johnson, giving the mayor de facto control over many of the city’s important operations. While the City Council could approve the mayor’s choice for city manager, the mayor could fire the top administrator unilaterally.
The mayor also would be able to veto some City Council actions, including ordinances and budget decisions. The council could override those vetoes with a supermajority vote.
Supporters argue the system comes with strong checks and balances to the mayor’s powers. It also includes an ethics commission and neighborhood councils.
Kevin Ferreira, director of the Sacramento-Sierra Building Trades & Construction Council, a coalition of more than two dozen unions, said interest groups like his would still have to work with the eight City Council members to get things done. But he said concentrating more power with the mayor would create a more efficient and accountable government.
“If something doesn’t work now, you really can’t pin it on anyone,” he said. “City Council members point at each other or blame the city manager. In this form (being proposed), if it doesn’t work, it’s the mayor. Without a doubt, you could point a finger at the mayor.”
Opponents contend the plan is little more than a power grab by Johnson and his supporters.
Those fighting the change say that if Johnson’s measure passes, Sacramento’s City Hall will descend into Chicago-style cronyism, where clout and connections serve as the most valuable currency. They charge that if a project or cause isn’t a political priority of the mayor’s, it will have little chance of getting favorable attention.
“What are people looking for? They’re looking for access,” former Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo said. “And that access would be focused and limited to certain individuals.”
Fargo, a two-term mayor whom Johnson defeated in 2008, has emerged as a leading opponent to the plan. Like other critics, she said she’s worried about consolidating power with one elected official.
“The setting of priorities is really left to the mayor,” she said. “Priorities like which neighborhoods get services and which developments go to the front of the line. If you weaken the City Council and focus on the mayor, you better be friends with the mayor.”
On Thursday night, Fargo and Hansen attended a neighborhood meeting in Oak Park to discuss the measure. On the other side of the table, speaking on behalf of Johnson’s campaign, was Michelle Rhee, the mayor’s wife and the controversial former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools.
Fargo and Hansen warned that neighborhoods like Oak Park would get left behind in a strong-mayor form of government that favors the powerful. Rhee, a veteran of contentious national political debates, countered that her husband loves Oak Park, the place where he grew up and later founded a nonprofit organization focusing on education and development. Johnson, according to Rhee, sees his proposal as a way to elevate the city as a whole.
The crowd of nearly 100 people seemed evenly mixed in its support of the measure.
Hansen, who launched a political committee against the mayor’s plan, said the government Johnson wants would “inject politics” into too many decisions. Along with Fargo, he is joined in fighting the plan by the League of Women Voters and the Democratic Party of Sacramento County.
“I’m guessing, but I think the people who are putting the most money in, they believe they’ll be treated better in the system that’s being proposed than the one we have now,” Hansen said.