Soapbox

Sacramento city charter should not be overhauled without good cause

Craig Powell
Craig Powell

With most local media seemingly preoccupied with the political “horse race” of Measure L (the jumbo contributors, the competition for endorsements, etc.), Eye on Sacramento decided to assess its likely impacts. Our 32-page examination of Measure L does not presume to tell voters how to vote. Eye on Sacramento is taking no position on the measure. Instead, we seek solely to inform voters so they can make up their own minds based on their own values and priorities.

A city charter, like a constitution, should not be overhauled lightly or without good cause. A threshold question we asked was: Have the proponents made the case for a major overhaul of city governance? We gave little credence to campaign claims that the current city charter is “outdated,” needs to be “updated,” that “it’s time” for an overhaul or that Measure L “is just better.” No one would seriously suggest that we overhaul the U.S. Constitution because it’s “outdated” at 225 years old.

The proponents’ more legitimate claims are that Measure L would make the city more accountable, more responsive, more efficient and effective, and more transparent. We examined each claim.

While the direct election of the city’s chief executive officer is an important indicia of accountability, we believe that real accountability involves being “held to account” for performance. On that score, we found that a city manager, who is subject to termination by the City Council on any given Tuesday night, is subject to far greater accountability than an elected executive mayor who could be removed only by recall or by waiting four years to deny him or her another term of office.

With regard to responsiveness, we found that our current council-city manager system is more responsive to the needs of average citizens. On the other hand, studies show that the two systems of government are about equally responsive to the overall policy preferences of citizens. We found, however, that an executive mayor may be more responsive to opportunities for economic growth.

In terms of efficiency and effectiveness, research clearly shows that cities that employ city managers are more efficient and are more effectively managed than cities run by executive mayors, primarily because city managers are not distracted as much by politics.

Components of Measure L will increase the transparency of city government, but the details – and thus the effectiveness – of such components are left almost entirely to the discretion of the City Council. Further, the transparency and other “good government” elements of Measure L (i.e., an independent redistricting commission, an ethics code and an ethics commission), each of which enjoys broad public support, could – and, if L fails, should – be adopted by the City Council or placed before the voters in 2016 as stand-alone charter amendments.

Good government measures should not be held hostage to Measure L. Three years ago, Eye on Sacramento joined with the ad hoc group Empower Sacramento to press for a ballot a measure to create an independent redistricting commission in the aftermath of the 2011 council redistricting debacle, but our effort stalled once our proposal was added onto the strong mayor proposal.

We also looked at the likely effect of Measure L on various parties. We believe that it would likely reduce the power and influence of council members to a considerable degree as they will lose their power to terminate the city manager. Since the influence of neighborhoods depends to a great deal on the power of council members, we conclude that the measure will significantly reduce the influence of neighborhoods on city policy. The possible creation of a neighborhood advisory committee will likely do nothing to arrest a decline in neighborhood influence under the measure.

We found that Measure L may politicize the appointment of senior city managers and may result in a loss of manager professionalism. While Measure L will increase the risk of cronyism in management appointments, it may also open up management positions for dynamic and action-oriented managers from the private sector.

The increase in mayoral powers under Measure L will likely lead to increased political fundraising by the mayor and greater risks of corruption and “pay-to-play” abuses, increasing the importance of a strong and effective ethics code and ethics commission.

Craig Powell is the president of Eye on Sacramento, a local government watchdog organization. Contact him at craig@eyeonsacramento.org. A copy of Eye on Sacramento’s report on Measure L can be downloaded at www.eyeonsacramento.com.

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