End run

It was plain from Kevin Johnson’s campaign for mayor that he thought the job should be more chief executive and less coalition and consensus builder. The “strong mayor” plan was part and parcel of his campaign and his intentions for the office from the beginning.

But after his initial decision to go the initiative-measure route, dispatching paid signature gatherers around town to get a strong-mayor proposal on the ballot, Mayor Johnson seemed to take a deep breath and decide to examine the idea rather than rushing to the ballot box. That seemed sensible enough, and it led to the formation of a committee that would review the city charter and make recommendations to the full city council on changes to the charter, including a strong-mayor proposal.

That seemed even more sensible.

We’re the first to acknowledge that Sacramento city government could use some streamlining and structural reform. Sacramento might even need a strong mayor, though the case for that remains to be made. The news of the city’s study committee was reassuring, an example of how a city ought to work: conscientiously, deliberately and publicly. What’s more, the mayor seemed remarkably temperate and wise in his decision to focus first on the city’s budget problems, while putting his campaign to power up his job description on the back burner.

It looked as if the grown-ups were in charge down at City Hall.

Then we find that Mayor Johnson, presented with the news that there was a deadline on his initiative, reactivated the petition drive and moved to put the strong-mayor measure on the ballot—before the city’s committee could complete their work.

Let’s remember that using the initiative process to do an end run around legislative deliberation is one of the main sources of California’s current problems. It’s resulted in a constitution that’s been amended more than 500 times and elections that are inundated with advertising from an ever-growing media echo chamber.

To see Mayor Johnson embrace this method of achieving his goal rather than waiting to at least see what the city’s committee will recommend is disheartening. It’s not as if there’s a spontaneous movement in Sacramento to rewrite the city’s charter and give the mayor more power; while we’re willing to listen to the proposal, it’s not something that Mayor Johnson could field an army of volunteers to accomplish. Rather than make his case to his colleagues and the citizens of Sacramento, he hired signature gatherers and a PR team.

It is not, in short, grassroots politics. This petition drive is just more of the same insider politicking that has caused so many problems for not just Sacramento but the entire state.

We’re willing to give Mayor Johnson the benefit of the doubt; he certainly wasn’t the only mayoral candidate who felt a strong mayor was a good idea. But when the mayor doesn’t make a good case for the idea and instead tries to do an end run around the rest of the city council, it comes across as a petty power grab rather than a legitimate quest for reform.

We think the mayor can do better. We certainly hope that Sacramento’s voters expect more.