Coming strong

Another year, another strong-mayor blitz by Kevin Johnson

There’s been a flurry of activity on Kevin Johnson’s strong-mayor plan in recent days. The mayor’s office and the strong-mayor political campaign—it often seems there’s little separation between the two—are pushing hard to pressure the city council to put a package of reforms giving the mayor greater power on the June ballot.

Two earlier versions of the strong-mayor initiative have been rejected—first by the courts, then by Johnson’s peers on the city council. He hopes this iteration will reach the ballot. But in many parts of the city, the strong-mayor plan is getting the same skepticism as earlier failed versions of the plan.

Johnson’s chief of staff, Kunal Merchant, hosted a “neighborhood summit” at the Boys & Girls Club in Alkali Flat last Saturday morning, January 7, on what the campaign is calling the “Checks and Balances Act.”

Only a handful of the city’s neighborhood associations were invited and many of the 20 or so attendees only found out about the meeting by word of mouth. And many of those came ready to argue.

Historian William Burg said the city abandoned a strong-mayor system in the 1910s because it was “massively corrupt.”

But Merchant replied, “This is not the 1910s. Once upon a time, power was concentrated in the hands of a small number of people. Not anymore.”

Merchant said that Sacramento is “at an inflection point” in history, and that it should move to create an executive mayor—separate from the city council, as other big cities have done.

He said “the fact that Sacramento has had four city managers in the last 18 months,” is evidence of the dysfunction of City Hall. “You might have noticed that our budget isn’t in the best shape, either,” Merchant joked.

In fact, Sacramento has had just two city managers in that period, along with two interim city managers, who held the job down until the city council found a permanent replacement for Ray Kerridge.

As for the city’s financial straits, attendee Earl Withycombe was skeptical that a strong-mayor system would help.

“Unemployment, crime—these are things that are typically not well-related to the forms of government being discussed here,” said Withycombe.

The new strong-mayor plan would make the mayor the city’s chief executive, with the power to hire and fire the city manager, much more control over the city budget, and the power to veto council decisions, just like the last two plans.

To sweeten the pot, the mayor is also proposing creation of an ethics committee as well as an independent redistricting commission.

There was generally more support in the room for the idea of ethics reform and greater transparency in government.

“But that can be done very quickly,” said Withycombe. “Why embed that in this charter change?”

Democratic Party activist Devin Lavelle agreed. “We don’t need a strong mayor to have greater transparency,” he argued. “This mayor has been faulted for not working with people and trying to ram things down people’s throat. Well, this is something he could actually work with people on.”

Likewise, a proposal to create and an independent redistricting commission—an idea that gained some traction after the last contentious round of city council redistricting—could be accomplished without giving the mayor more power. In fact, citizen groups are already working on the idea independent of the mayor.

The main message that Merchant wanted to get across is that, after two years of failing to gain city council support for his plan, it’s time to move to the ballot and “let the people vote.”

“At the end of the day, you’ve got to trust the people. When they are engaged, you get the best democracy on Earth,” said Merchant. Still, he said the mayor’s ballot measure is better than the option of a citizens’ charter commission, like the one Los Angeles created to guide its charter reform effort a few years back.

Critics say the ballot-box route gives Johnson and his supporters the upper hand—because they’re positioned to spend heavily on a political campaign to get the measure approved.

“You’ve used that phrase ‘Let the people speak’ a lot,” said Burg. “But today, corporations are people, and money is speech.”

On Monday, the campaign—recently rebranded as Sacramento 2020—announced that former mayors Jimmie Yee and Phil Isenberg are in support of the plan. Former mayors Anne Rudin and Heather Fargo are strongly opposed.

The mayor’s campaign is also now touting a poll that supporters say shows strong support for the strong-mayor plan. But the campaign won’t release the actual poll questions and data, despite requests from several media outlets and repeated requests from SN&R.

Many observers think there aren’t enough votes on the city council to advance the strong-mayor plan. Asked if another rejection by the council would be the end of it, Merchant laughed and said, “No.”

“We’re not going to stop until we’ve heard from the people.”