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At the Feb. 7 City Council meeting, council members scrapped Mayor Kevin Johnson’s strong mayor initiative – dubbed the Checks and Balances Act of 2012 – in favor of an elected charter review commission.
The move, initiated by Councilman Kevin McCarty and supported by six other council votes, paves the way for a costly November election and a tangled web of political intrigue and shenanigans.
The cost for electing a charter review commission is still undetermined – it will depend largely on how many candidates line up seeking a spot, according to the city clerk’s office.
Just placing the question of “Do you want an elected charter review commission?” on the ballot will cost an estimated $190,000, according to the city clerk’s office.
The full cost of a charter review commission extends well beyond the election, though.
Once the measure goes to the ballot, the election of a charter review commission is out of council members’ hands. Unlike the redistricting committee last year, they do not get to appoint members to the commission.
The City Council will instead prepare for a 15-member elected commission to crack open all 19 articles in the city charter for review – and they will have two years to complete the task.
Every meeting of the commission will have to be given public notice, held in a public forum and staffed by city employees. As City Councilwoman Angelique Ashby said before the Feb. 7 vote to pursue the commission, “If you think this is going to be cost-neutral, you’re wrong.”
The financial costs of electing 15 commissioners out of a candidate pool of who knows how many is a minor consideration, however, when compared to the prospects for some very messy campaigning.
Candidate qualifications are twofold: Candidates must be registered voters in Sacramento, and they must submit a nomination petition with a minimum of 20 voter signatures.
This opens the door for any politico with an agenda to get his or her name on the ballot.
With local unions and special interests edgy about the possibility of a charter overhaul, it’s likely the competition for a seat at the reviewer’s table will be fierce.
Tensions will be particularly high among public safety unions that rallied in the ’90s for binding arbitration clauses in the charter and among city employees with pension benefit rules that may well come under scrutiny.
And unless the City Council expands current campaign finance restrictions, campaigns could get expensive, effectively knocking most “Regular Joes” – citizens with good intentions but empty pockets – out of the race before it even begins.
That could leave Sacramento with a charter review commission stacked in favor of well-heeled special interests wanting to play the system in their favor – which is what charter reform is supposed to prevent.
The rallying cry for change in the city charter has been a lack of accountability in the current form of government, but there is no guarantee that a charter review commission will come up with anything better.
In any event, recommendations from the commission will have to go to the voters for final approval – but not before the city has spent untold amounts of general fund dollars on an unpleasant election and two years of charter review.
Perhaps before we get that far, Sacramentans need to ask, “What really is the problem we want to solve?”
Depending on the answer, we may not need an elected charter review commission after all.
If the problem is with the system, it should be changed. But, if the problem is with the people running the system, an elected charter review commission won’t provide the answer, no matter how much it costs or how long it takes.
Melissa Corker is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. Follow her on Twitter @MelissaCorker.