Sacramento’s ‘strong-mayor’ plan very different from Fresno’s

Both sides in the Measure L battle are using mailers in the campaign’s final week to sway Sacramento voters.
Both sides in the Measure L battle are using mailers in the campaign’s final week to sway Sacramento voters.

Since I was mayor of Fresno and supported Fresno’s move to a “strong-mayor” system in 1993, you would think I support Measure L in Sacramento. You would be wrong.

Fresno is cited by Measure L supporters as a model for Sacramento’s proposal, but there are significant differences between the cities and the proposals. Those differences are why I oppose Measure L.

When Fresno considered a strong-mayor system, it was suffering from an economic downturn, an extremely divisive City Council, many years of urban sprawl and increasing diversity that was poorly represented in city government. It lacked the strong neighborhood organizations and history of civic engagement that characterize Sacramento, and local government was dysfunctional. The case for change was much stronger there than here, where no good case for change has been made at all.

Sacramento’s proposed city charter change is also different. In Fresno, the community and the council agreed it would be positive to separate the mayor from the council and give the mayor greater, but not unbridled, executive authority. The change also replaced the mayor’s spot on the council with a seventh council seat to address a growing population and avoid tied votes.

There is no such provision in Sacramento’s proposal. And overriding a mayoral veto in Fresno requires only a two-thirds majority, not the 75 percent in Sacramento’s measure that could make overturning a veto nearly impossible.

There was another critical difference in Fresno. The vote on how the city would be governed was separate from the question of who would govern. Voters approved the charter change in March 1993 during a mayoral election. But it did not go into effect until the next mayoral election, in 1996. In both elections, voters knew what kind of mayor they were electing; Fresno didn’t change systems in the middle of a mayor’s term.

If approved on Tuesday, Measure L would go into effect on Jan. 1. While the measure includes a new three-term limit for the mayor, the terms already served by Kevin Johnson don’t count. He could serve additional terms under the new system, so Measure L is all about the current mayor, whether you like him or not. No election on a city’s governance structure should be about current elected officials.

Fresno’s proposal also did not include a “sunset” clause. Sacramento’s includes one only six years down the road. If Measure L is the right thing to do, why require another election to keep it after only six years?

A major argument for Measure L is that it makes city government more “accountable” because the person running the show answers directly to voters; he or she can’t hide behind elected officials like a city manager supposedly can.

Well, accountability can and does happen in a council-manager system. After one term, I was voted out of office in 1993. But the three people elected since then as “strong mayors” encountered little opposition for re-election, despite mixed opinions of their performance. That was partly because opponents could not get traction when donors were reluctant to oppose those mayors, even if they didn’t like them.

And did a strong-mayor system miraculously solve all of Fresno’s civic problems? Of course not. It was an incremental improvement, but Fresno still struggles with the challenges facing cities today. No structural reform is a “magic bullet” to cure all our ills, but one without justification is much less likely to create progress.

Sacramento is not broken. We don’t need Measure L.

Karen Humphrey served as mayor of Fresno from 1989 to 1993 and now lives in Sacramento.