California’s early 20th century political reformers, such as Hiram Johnson, believed that good government could be insulated from venal politics by weakening political parties, creating independent regulatory entities and institutionalizing professional expertise.
The latter took several forms, such as state and local civil-service systems to limit political spoils and turning day-to-day operations of local governments over to professional, and ostensibly apolitical, managers.
City after city in California adopted the city manager system that had been pioneered in several Eastern cities – Staunton, Va., being the first in 1908 – and they included even the largest, such as Los Angeles and San Diego.
By the late 20th century, however, civic leaders in larger cities were beginning to recognize that the city manager system had limitations and drawbacks.
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Managers were typically beholden only to their city councils, whose members had parochial preoccupations. And while mayors elected by their entire cities may have had broader visions, they had little or no power to realize them, or to influence nonmunicipal factors, such as schools or regional transportation, that could affect their residents’ lives.
By and by, it became evident that when cities reach certain levels of population, cultural diversity and economic complexity, their mayors need to become the equivalents of governors and presidents – elected executives with authority to make things happen and be held accountable for what happens.
In the last couple of decades, Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland and Fresno, among others, shifted to strong – or at least stronger – mayoralties. But there are still some holdouts, such as Long Beach, San Jose and, so far, Sacramento.
The capital’s mayor, former basketball star Kevin Johnson, has made the most of his very limited authority, with deals to bring new ownership to the Sacramento Kings and build a new basketball arena. And he wants to build on those achievements by persuading voters to add Sacramento to the list of strong-mayor cities by passing a ballot measure, Proposition L.
Johnson and his allies face stiff opposition, both from those nostalgic for the city’s smaller and more homogeneous past and parochial interests that prefer having a weak mayor, including some unions. And Johnson himself is something of a lightning rod because of his obvious political ambitions and his and his wife’s histories as education reformers who joust with school unions.
Johnson aside, however, it’s high time that Sacramento, not only the state capital but the commercial capital of a large region, join other large cities in strengthening its mayoralty.
While some may see it – wrongly – as a power grab, it is more accurately a vehicle for improved accountability.