Foon Rhee

Foon Rhee: Rushing ‘strong mayor’ to ballot could easily backfire, divide Sacramento

I totally understand why some on the City Council and many in Sacramento just want to be done with strong mayor. It’s time for voters to finally decide this issue.

But rushing a plan to the ballot a full year before the election is a big mistake.

In fact, this strategy may result in the exact opposite of what strong-mayor supporters say they want. It could further divide the community, and it makes it less likely voters will say yes in November 2014. There’s only one shot at this; if voters say no, it’s likely to be many years before another attempt gets on the ballot.

Voters won’t be deciding on just giving more power to Sacramento’s mayor. In a single measure, they will be voting up or down on a long list of significant changes to the city charter. They include imposing term limits for the mayor and council, creating a citizens commission to draw council districts and requiring the council to adopt an ethics code and an open-government ordinance.

While that list might include something for everyone, it could also give people more reasons to vote no. Any sweeteners certainly haven’t been enough to fend off strong opposition so far from labor unions and Democrats.

At the same time, by restarting their own debate so soon, council members have opened themselves up to months and months of potential haggling over specific provisions.

It’s already started. Before a 5-4 majority on the council took the first vote this past week to place the issue on the ballot, they were busy tinkering with the proposal put forward by Sacramento Tomorrow, a group of civic leaders.

The council reduced the maximum number of consecutive terms the mayor could serve from three to two, and took out a provision requiring a public vote for pay increases of more than 5 percent for the mayor and council. Those revisions will be incorporated into the version that the council takes up next month.

Yet, council members are kidding themselves if they think they’ll be done with this issue after one more vote. Instead, it’s more likely that they’ll be in for more divisive and distracting debate. The final ballot measure language doesn’t have to be done until late June; tweaks could conceivably be made until the last minute.

That isn’t putting this issue behind us; that could put it front and center for an entire year. I’m all for giving voters ample opportunity to study ballot measures, but do they really need that much time?

I haven’t decided how I’ll vote. For me, the specific provisions matter.

There are good arguments on both sides. Opponents say strong mayor doesn’t fit Sacramento’s long history of neighborhood politics, and say that there’s no proof the current system is broken or that strong mayor has been successful in cities such as San Diego and San Francisco.

Proponents say that a city of Sacramento’s size needs an executive mayor who can truly lead, and that City Hall needs to make big decisions more efficiently.

While it’s true that there has been lots of debate over the past five years, there has been little consensus. If Sacramento Tomorrow leaders had spent more time on community outreach, if they had more clearly demonstrated that this is a priority for the public and if they had consulted more with interest groups, it’s possible that the proposal would already have broader backing.

While you’re never going to reach agreement on every detail, is this proposal the best possible? Does it strike the right balance between the powers and duties of the mayor and council members?

I don’t think anyone knows.

One thing is for sure: If in addition to strong mayor, the November 2014 ballot also has a measure on the proposed arena subsidy (an initial measure would have to qualify for the June ballot and pass first), it will be one whale of an election.

I’m afraid that Councilman Steve Hansen is right to warn that when we’re still recovering from the horrible recession, we can’t afford more bruising political battles. “He who troubles his own house,” he quoted the Bible, “shall inherit the wind.”

Rather than a gentle Delta breeze, it could get awfully blustery around here.