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Editorial: Latest ‘strong mayor’ effort is too rushed

Sacramento voters should get to decide whether giving more power to the mayor would be good for the city. But there’s no good reason to re-stoke this highly divisive debate right now – and doing so could hurt progress at City Hall.

Yet, that’s apparently what is going to happen, with the City Council primed to hold a hearing Tuesday evening on the latest “strong-mayor” proposal.

Leaders of Sacramento Tomorrow, the group behind the proposal, say they are putting it forward now in case the council wants to put it on the June 2014 ballot. Yet it seems clear that under a new state law on city charter changes, the soonest that a strong-mayor plan could go before voters is November 2014. The council could wait until well into next year to engage in this fight again and wouldn’t have to decide until late June.

Council members have plenty to do. They must make sure that taxpayers are protected in the city’s financing for the proposed downtown arena. They have to figure out if the city can afford proposals to renovate the Community Center Theater and expand the Convention Center. They must continue monitoring the city’s finances, including worrisome long-term health care and pension costs.

This City Council, with five of nine members elected since 2010, has been rather collegial and productive, working together to streamline some of the city’s rules on businesses, including “superstores.” The council is also working on economic development and the city’s affordable housing policy.

Why unnecessarily risk messing up the council’s mojo?

It would be far better, in fact, if Sacramento Tomorrow’s leaders spent more time doing what they pledged – like being more inclusive than prior strong-mayor pushes. While the group lists a dozen neighborhood associations in its community outreach, it acknowledges that for several, it met only with leaders, not the general membership. The group conferred with only the top brass of labor and business organizations. The most public of the public outreach was a telephone “town hall” during which the group says about 2,600 people listened in and 50 asked questions.

Because Sacramento Tomorrow has been too hasty in going to the council, it only feeds the suspicion that its separation from Mayor Kevin Johnson isn’t as wide as the group’s leaders and mayor’s office insist. Skeptics note that the only two individual donors named so far – Steve Ayers and Stanley Van Vleck – were vocal backers of Johnson’s previous efforts.

It also doesn’t help that Sacramento Tomorrow’s plan is very similar to the last proposal Johnson put forward in 2012 – and that some of the few changes would boost the mayor.

Under its proposal, the mayor would be the city’s chief executive, could fire the city manager at will, would propose a budget and have veto power. While Sacramento Tomorrow’s leaders had initially indicated that any changes would not take effect until the new mayor is elected in 2016, if this plan is approved next year, Johnson would wield the additional power starting in 2015. A mayor could serve three full terms in a row, compared to two in the previous plan, and any terms prior to this change wouldn’t count. So, hypothetically, Johnson – with strong-mayor powers – could be in office until 2028.

The mayor’s office says there has been ample debate and it’s best for the city for the plan to go before voters quickly.

There is a strong argument that while Sacramento has had some good mayors, a charter change would make that more likely by attracting better candidates. But it needs to be the right decision, no matter who is in office.

Yet as Sacramento Tomorrow itself says, a major flaw with the strong-mayor debate so far has been that it has been too tied to Johnson’s political ambitions. So far, its rushed effort isn’t doing much to fix that problem.