California Forum

Viewpoints: Strong-mayor system needed to combat inaction

When I moved back home to Sacramento in 2004 after a decade in New York, I could hardly believe all of the exciting projects on tap for my hometown. From 2004 to 2007, my wife and I attended seemingly endless public discussions about civic projects like the riverfront, the railyard and, of course, the arena. Sacramento’s exciting future was the talk of the town.

Unfortunately, that’s all it ended up being – talk. Project after project fizzled, all in the midst of a national economic boom that was spurring other cities to new heights.

In Sacramento? Here we talked.

So what held us back? In most big cities, citizens look to their mayors to take decisive action. But here, the mayor’s vote carries the same weight as those of the other eight City Council members. There isn’t one leader; there are nine. That’s like having nine governors in one state, or nine CEOs at one company. No one is truly in charge. How can that possibly be?

That’s fine for small cities. But cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Fresno, Oakland and San Diego have all moved to the so-called “strong mayor” or “executive mayor” system. In fact, of the 25 largest U.S. cities, more than two-thirds are now governed this way. When Gov. Jerry Brown was Oakland’s mayor, he successfully pushed for the executive system there, arguing that it “counterbalances the parochialism of council districts.” In other words, it allows the mayor to act in the best interests of the entire city.

So why is Sacramento content with this weak-mayor system? Where did we get the monopoly on wisdom?

On Nov. 4, Sacramento can join those cities by passing Measure L. The crux of this measure is that Sacramento mayors would no longer sit on the City Council. They would propose budgets, have the authority to hire and fire department heads, and make other key decisions now made by the unelected city manager. The mayor would also be able to veto certain council actions. There are other points, too, but those are the big ones. It probably sounds a lot like what you thought mayors already did.

The opposition argues that giving one person so much “power” has the potential to lead to corruption. Their other major platform: Things seem to be working pretty well now.

These are wildly specious arguments. First, Measure L dictates that any mayoral veto can be overturned by six council members. Secondly, it mandates “voter reapproval” in 2020. Both Oakland and San Diego had similar requirements and, notably, both voted a second time to reaffirm the system. In Fresno, a decade after the city instituted its own strong-mayor system, The Fresno Bee opined, “One thing is certain: It’s far better than the old system.”

And the opposition’s oft-cited example of how the current system is working just fine is that Sacramento kept the Kings and funded an arena. But, in fact, the arena almost didn’t happen.

In 2012, the arena project was nearly killed. The NBA’s deadline for producing a financing package for a new arena was March 1. Without one, the team could move to Seattle. The council met Feb. 7 to decide whether or not to require a public vote to use parking revenue to help fund the arena. However, the public vote would not happen until June – after the NBA’s deadline – effectively ending the Kings’ reign here.

The council was split, resulting in a narrow 5-4 decision that forged a path for the new arena. Had just one more council member opted for the public vote, the team likely would have left. However, in a strong-mayor system, had that happened, the mayor could have vetoed the decision.

So it wasn’t our weak-mayor system that helped keep the Kings here. It was the 2012 City Council that helped keep the Kings here (barely). If former council members who had opposed public funds for an arena had still been in office, the mayor would have had no recourse.

As for the corruption argument, this charge has been made before. In 1990, the city and county considered a merger that would have made this America’s seventh-largest city. And the issue of a stronger mayor to oversee the merged metropolis was also criticized by opponents over fears of corruption.

In response, former City Councilman and then-Sacramento County Supervisor Grantland Johnson told The Sacramento Bee, “Certainly there could be incompetence, there could be corruption, there could be graft, but that can occur – and has occurred, I would submit – under a city manager form of government.”

And on June 11, 1990, the council voted 6-2 to support the stronger mayor form of governance. Among the six council members who voted to give the mayor veto power over the council: Mayor Anne Rudin, and then-future Sacramento Mayors Joe Serna and Heather Fargo. Yes, the same Heather Fargo who lost to Kevin Johnson and now opposes mayoral veto power.

The charter change never happened, however, because the merger never transpired. But then-Councilman Serna was passionate in his response to the opposition, telling The Bee, “(They’re) saying, ‘Take this gigantic city … and run it like a village.’ ”

So, instead of focusing on what could go wrong with an executive mayor system, why don’t we consider what could go right? Could decisions be made faster, allowing us to compete more effectively? Could we attract a deeper talent pool of mayoral candidates? Could we benefit from having someone looking out for the best interests of the whole city rather than just one district?

In a manner frustratingly consistent with our outdated system, we’ve been talking about this for six years. Some council members have asked, “What’s the hurry?” The city needs more study, they said in 2008; more time, they asked for in 2010; more discussion, they pleaded in 2012. This is how a weak-mayor system operates. This is why progress comes slowly here. This is why we need change.

It’s time, Sacramento, for a little less conversation, and a little more action, please.