Executive privilege

The primaries will be over Tuesday, but the power struggle in City Hall will just be coming to a boil.

Kevin Johnson wants his strong-mayor lite proposal on the ballot in November. For that to happen, he has to get the Sacramento City Council to approve it by July 13, in order to meet election deadlines.

But it’s not clear that Mayor Johnson has three votes on the council, let alone the five he’d need. Johnson can pray all he likes, but Councilman Ray Tretheway isn’t likely to answer this time.

Here’s what is going on: There are three groups of people who have power in Sacramento. Business, labor and neighborhoods. The last two groups like the current system well enough, but the business folks—Kevin Johnson foremost among them—don’t.

But for the most part, the “yes” side has been really awful at explaining how exactly the strong-mayor initiative will fix any of the problems Sacramento has. They talk about “accountability,” then they talk about it some more, but never seem to get around to saying how a strong mayor will make the air cleaner, the streets safer or keep the libraries and swimming pools open.

Architect and strong-mayor supporter Kevin Donnelly gave the best description Bites has heard so far of the accountability problem. Just look at North Natomas, he said. It was supposed to be model of smart growth, a forward-thinking community. But instead, “It’s basically Roseville without the benefit of any topography,” Donnelly explained, adding that it’s impossible to hold anyone, you know, accountable for the way Natomas turned out.

Point taken. But so what? The strong-mayor initiative will do nothing to get developer and labor money out of our politics, which seem as responsible for North Natomas as anything else. And for the most part, the only time any incumbent gets “held accountable” is when the other side has more money. Come 2012, nobody will have enough money to hold Kevin Johnson accountable, strong mayor or no strong mayor.

Argument No. 2 is the “no way to run a business” argument. It’s not called an “executive mayor” system for nothing, and as Donnelly puts it, “A good corporation would never be run” the way Sacramento is run now. Developer Mark Friedman told Bites, “It’s not possible to effectively run a business by committee.” Strong-mayor backer and developer Steve Ayers said, “A business would not be run effectively and efficiently with multiple bosses.”

But ever since Bites was old enough to fill out a W-9, bosses have been reminding Bites that “This is not a democracy.” So when a bunch of bosses try to explain why they want to make an actual democracy more like a business, well, it just makes Bites want to go on strike.

Friedman argues the current system makes it hard to implement an ambitious and coherent vision for the city. “What we have now is a debating society. It takes a long time to make decisions, because they need to be made by consensus,” he said.

Bites agrees, and would add that consensus is made more difficult by political self-interest and sometimes just plain incompetence. But while the current governance structure may make it harder for a good idea to get implemented in City Hall, it also helps protect us from a lot of really bad ideas and abuses of power. A perfect example is the strong-mayor initiative itself—which, when first introduced, was riddled with legal flaws.

The only reason that Johnson’s latest proposal has any checks and balances in it at all is because it went through the wringer of Sacramento’s painfully slow, sometimes petty and thoroughly democratic city council.