A strong move

Bites was the only reporter inside last week's strong-mayor debate

When the AstroTurf group Sacramento Tomorrow rebooted the strong-mayor effort last year, it said it had nothing to do with Kevin Johnson.

And yet there was Boss Johnson on Wednesday night, March 26, at a town hall meeting, saying, “I hope you will support me in November” with a vote to approve the strong-mayor plan.

Johnson tag-teamed with Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Iron Workers Local 118 president Kevin Ferreira, facing off against former Mayor Heather Fargo, Sacramento City Unified School District Board of Education candidate Anna Molander, and Oak Park activist Michael Benjamin.

The forum was put on by SEIU Local 1000, the state workers’ union. It was standing-room only and open to the public. But at the request of the mayor’s people, reporters were turned away at the door. Well, some reporters were turned away. Hell with that.

You know the basics of the strong-mayor plan by now. It would make the mayor an executive separate from the city council. He would introduce the budget and could veto any action by the city council. The council would need a super-duper majority of six out of eight votes to override—giving the mayor a much stronger veto than the California governor or the U.S. president. The mayor would hire and fire the city manager, making him the head of the city bureaucracy. The council’s power would be token at best, more likely they’d be a rubber stamp for whoever sits in the mayor’s office.

It’s never been clear what real-world problem the strong-mayor plan is supposed to fix. Johnson’s special brand of word salad doesn’t help. “What it all boils down to is this: At the end of the day, you have two different visions. And I would ask you to allow Sacramento to evolve with this vision going forward, where we can take our community to the next level.”

Got that?

Johnson’s teammate Ferreira told the union crowd that strong mayor would mean more construction projects and more project-labor agreements for his members. Like the one the trade unions struck with the Sacramento Kings to build an NBA arena. “In L.A. and in the Bay Area, it’s working fine. There are project-labor agreements all over the place,” Ferreira said, noting both of those cities have executive-mayor systems.

Steinberg didn’t contribute much to the debate, other than grumpiness. This was the same Wednesday that news broke of state Sen. Leland Yee’s jaw-dropping indictment for gun running and corruption—the third corruption case to blow up on Steinberg’s watch in recent months.

“I’m Darrell Steinberg, and I’ve had a really rough day,” Steinberg joked at the beginning of the town hall. It really didn’t get any better for the next couple of hours. Steinberg has said he’s considering a run for mayor, and probably feels a strong-mayor system would better suit him. Bites wonders if his time arguing for strong mayor could have been more productively spent attending to issues at his current job.

Probably the most cogent argument coming from the “yes” side was Steinberg’s complaint that the mayor is elected citywide, but has no more power than a single council person. And Team K.J. rightly points out that five of the eight largest California cities have an executive-mayor form of government. But that’s a numbers trick. Take the top 10 California cities, and they’re evenly split between strong mayor and the kind of council-manager government that Sacramento has now. So what?

And Johnson wasted points by saying things like, “The Sacramento City Charter has not been modernized in about 100 years.” That’s just false. Does he not think statements like that will be fact-checked?

Oh, right. Despite the SEIU’s bizarre and dumb decision to agree to a reporter ban, the mayor wasn’t really in friendly territory.

When Fargo quipped, “I don’t see how you can get a quarter-billion dollars for an arena and then complain that you don’t have enough power,” she got big applause. Fargo also brought up the fact that Johnson and his council colleagues denied a public referendum on the arena project, even though the city’s “sports policy” explicitly calls for a public vote. That’s a strong move right there.

“We can’t allow the power of our neighborhoods to get sucked away by the wealthy and well-connected,” said Molander. And Benjamin pushed back against the argument for a unified “vision” coming down from the mayor. “I voted my council person in. If their ’vision’ is different than the other eight members, it is what it is,” he said, adding: “We need more trickle-up politics, not more trickle-down politics.”

Bites wonders if the strong-mayor boosters will keep using Johnson as pitchman. They probably shouldn’t. If they do, next time they should make sure there aren’t any reporters in the room.