Crunch time for strong mayor

As this paper was making its way to the printer Tuesday night, the Sacramento City Council was still debating whether to support Mayor Kevin Johnson’s third bid to give himself (and his successors) more power.

No matter what they decided (no pressure, Darrell Fong) the issue is likely to come back in future council meetings. Either the council and the city attorney will finalize language for a strong-mayor ballot measure that would appear before voters this June, or, in the case of a “no” vote this week, the mayor is sure to try make his case again before February 21—the hard deadline for the council to put something on the ballot.

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 pad support for the measure, Johnson is also proposing creation of an ethics committee as well as an independent redistricting commission.

Going into Tuesday’s meeting, city Councilman Steve Cohn was one of the likely “yes” votes, but said he would support it only under certain conditions. For example, he wanted to see term limits added for the mayor, and provisions that would retain some of the council’s power over hiring and firing the city manager. Cohn suggested that the council should be able to fire the city manager with six votes. This provision would also allow the city council to overrule the mayor if he wanted to the city manager, again with six votes.

Cohn said these changes would convince him to put it on the ballot, even though he said, “I wasn’t excited about it coming back to council again. It wasn’t a high priority for me.”

In other strong-mayor news, former councilman and current Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg dismayed some friends on the council by giving Strong Mayor III a hearty endorsement, while the Sacramento County Democratic Party condemned the measure as a “power grab.”

One other event got little media coverage but was worth a mention: The Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce held an “academic panel” on the strong-mayor proposal. It wasn’t exactly a debate, both panelists—University of the Pacific political science professor Robert Benedetti and former communications professor Barbara O’Connor both support the plan.

“But if you think this will solve all your problems, it won’t,” said Benedetti, adding that, “One of the problems is a lot of fragmentation and disagreement on your council.”

O’Connor sounded a similar note. “I always thought city government worked pretty well. That’s changed,” she said, citing recent controversy over redistricting as an example of dysfunction on the council.

Both panelists agreed that the city council could pursue creation of redistricting commission and an ethics committee without changing the powers of the mayor. And voters can already vote out disagreeable council members, if they think fragmentation is a real problem. “And I think they will,” O’Connor predicted.