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Two weeks after taking office in December, Mayor Kevin Johnson launched a ballot reform initiative to expand the executive powers of the Sacramento mayor, suggesting that enhanced executive powers would make city government more efficient and accountable. It would also make him one of the more powerful executives in any California city.
Throughout its short, tumultuous life, the so-called "strong mayor initiative" has been praised or criticized by citizen groups as either a democratizing modern reform or a gateway to tyrannical government.
Last Friday, the primary group promoting the change, Sacramentans for Accountable Government, presented City Hall with a petition to put the initiative onto the 2010 ballot; by the group's figures, it was signed by more than 50,000 city residents. Others have come out in strong opposition, including Stop the Power Grab, a citizen group started this January. The Sacramento City Council formed an 11-member Charter Review Committee in February to consider the issue, and it has been holding hearings for the last few months.
Sacramento's current council-manager system has been in place since the city charter was drafted in 1920. Sacramento’s position of mayor is essentially just a modestly embellished city council seat. As laid out by the charter, the chief executive officer of Sacramento is actually the city manager, which is an unelected position.
This means that Ray Kerridge, the present city manager, wields most of the powers you would expect of an executive arm of government, including enforcing laws, appointing department directors and proposing the budget.
Under the council-manager system, the city manager is appointed by the city council and serves "at their pleasure," with no term limit until he or she retires or a majority of councilmembers decides to fire him.
In the strong mayor plan, the council-manager system would be replaced by a mayor-council system. That plan installs the mayor as executive of city government, removes him from the city council and gives him a wide degree of political independence. If approved, this measure would give the mayor all the executive powers of the city manager and more.
The mayor could hire and fire department directors, including the city manager, treasurer and attorney. He could also run without term limits and could propose a budget that could only be blocked with council override. The strong mayor initiative also grants the mayor a powerful tool that the city manager doesn't have: veto power over any city council ordinance.
City Attorney Eileen Teichert voiced concern over the initiative's provisions in an analysis presented to the April 20 hearing of the Charter Review Committee.
"Essentially, this proposed strong mayor initiative creates an imbalance of powers," she wrote. "It lacks important checks and balances and blurs the lines of authority and accountability contained in other strong mayor cities' charters."
Over-expanded budget control was a primary concern Teichert listed, as was the strong mayor's comprehensive appointment power that would eliminate intra-governmental checks.
Steven Maviglio, Johnson's volunteer spokesman and a key figure in Sacramentans for Accountable Government, conceded that the plan is a stiff prescription that would give the mayor many powers.
"It depends in how you look at it," he said. "But it's definitely one of the strongest ones out there."
Maviglio also voiced strong disapproval of the charter review committee and dismissed them as being "politically appointed." Each of the 11 members was appointed by a city councilmember, including the mayor, with two other committee members nominated by a subcommittee. "They were put in place by councilmembers who had their views already set in stone," Maviglio said.
Committee Chairman Bill Edgar replied to this claim, "It's simply not true.... Everybody on the committee has an open mind on the matter and everyone is invited to testify." Ultimately, the charter review committee can review proposed changes and make recommendations, but cannot and will not make the definitive choice. That's the job of Sacramento voters.
Strong mayor systems are common to major California cities including San Francisco and Los Angeles. Fresno introduced the system in 1997, while San Diego started its strong mayor system in 2004.
Fresno Bee columnist Jim Bowen wrote this January that the strong mayor system was "one of the smartest things that Fresno voters did," and the initiative's wide passage suggests that Fresnans agreed. Strong mayorship, Bowen writes, "put an end to the confusion of who would control Fresno" and allowed the economic development expertise of Mayor Ashley Swearengin to reign with less resistance.
However, the Sacramento plan would allow for greater mayoral impunity than any of these other cities and should be taken with corresponding gravity.
For many, the question remains: What is Johnson restrained from accomplishing under the current council-manager system? The central benefit of a strong mayor, according to the initiative's author, Tom Hiltachk, is increased accountability.
"A more representative form of city government will lead to a more effective and accountable government," he wrote in the initiative. "If city services are inadequate, citizens should be able to hold their elected representative responsible for such failures.
This still leaves unanswered what issues a stronger [strong?] mayor would be able to address, or for that matter, in what ways the current system is ineffective. Opponents to the measure make almost precisely the same argument for the reverse outcome: A stronger mayor, to skeptics, would be less accountable due to greater political license.
Maviglio has much to say on the strong mayor initiative, but not a lot on what Johnson would actually plan to do with that unleashed power. Under a strong mayor system, Johnson "would be able to get things done," Maviglio said, but those precise "things" weren't quite clear. "He'd put more cops on the street, work for economic development, and support our schools," he said.
Those changes are political bread and butter. A councilmember would risk their public image by opposing any of those reforms. Again, what would a strong mayor do?
The clearest answer may be tighter control over Sacramento's budget, but many argue that enough can be done in the present budget system.
"I have a vision for what I think the city can become," Johnson told The Sacramento Bee last week. "But if I can't allocate some resources toward making that vision happen, then it never will."
Whether a strong mayor in Sacramento is a means to accomplish otherwise impossible goals or merely an end in itself is a contentious point in the ongoing debate. City Hall is presently counting petition signatures and the charter review committee met July 2 to continue discussion in a forum open to the public. According to Edgar, no decisions will be reached until August.