Isn’t it ironic?

Arguments against elected city-charter commission sound awfully familiar

It was one of those forehead-slapping moments of irony. Mayor Kevin Johnson was trying to talk his Sacramento City Council peers out of a fall ballot measure that, if approved by voters, would create a charter commission to investigate and recommend reforms to city government.

“We’re rushing something to the ballot with no real discussion,” the mayor complained.

That’s the same exact criticism leveled at Johnson when he first tried to get his strong-mayor proposal on the ballot more than three years ago. And then again when he tried strong mayor a second time. And again the time after that.

Last week, the majority of the city council formalized an earlier decision not to advance Johnson’s strong-mayor plan. Instead, the city council opted to ask voters if they’re interested in charter reform at all—and, if so, whether they want to form an elected charter commission.

If approved, the 15-member board could consider a suite of possible reforms, including some version of a strong-mayor form of government, an independent redistricting commission, an ethics commission, changes to elections rules, pension rules, or even general housekeeping of the charter and pruning of outdated language.

Opponents of this more deliberative—supporters say more democratic—route to charter reform were not at all happy. The Sacramento Police Officers Association, long a backer of Johnson’s strong-mayor approach, used the charter-commission vote as a reason to stop negotiating pensions with the city—a key piece of the budget deal the city manager is trying to push through.

The Sacramento Bee editorial page, which has also tended to side with Johnson on this issue, derided “the council’s 6-3 vote to spend $621,000 to place charter review on the ballot.”

It backed up its argument with a quote from Dustin Smith, president of the SPOA: “The money they voted to spend on charter review could pay for six police officers.”

But the quote and the Bee’s assertion that the city council voted to spend $621,000 are wrong.

Before its decision last week, the city attorney provided the city council a two-year estimate totaling $621,000 in administrative and election costs—if voters say yes to a charter commission.

That includes the costs of this November’s ballot question (maximum of $205,100), costs for existing city staff to help the commission with research and meetings over two years ($316,578), and the cost of putting any the commission’s recommendations on the ballot in 2014 (somewhere between $35,000 and $150,000; they went with the high number).

Keep in mind that first number, the $205,000 in election costs, assumes that the charter commission is the only local measure on the ballot in November.

It won’t be; there’s also a sales-tax measure and a measure doing away with the claw headed to the same ballot, and they will share some of those costs. The charter-commission measure will likely cost closer to $100,000. And the rest of the costs don’t apply at all, unless voters approve the charter-commission measure. That’s no sure thing.

Also, the staff time dedicated to helping run the charter commission is money that would be spent anyway, those employees in the city-clerk and city-attorney offices would just be working on other projects.

Still, some city council members objected to the timing of the measure, saying that even asking the voters to weigh in is an expensive distraction in this time of budget crisis. “We should be focused on our economy and the restoration of city services,” said Councilwoman Angelique Ashby.

That’s the same criticism made earlier this year when the city spent $680,000 to craft a financing plan for a new Kings arena, mostly in consultant contracts. The city also paid $189,000 in annual salary to Assistant City Manager John Dangberg, who spent a year working on the arena project.

More ironic, many of those opposed this measure, such as the mayor and Ashby and Councilman Jay Schenirer, were all firmly in the “let the people vote” camp earlier this year, supporting placement of Johnson’s strong-mayor plan on the ballot.

“The irony is starting to get to me,” said Councilman Steve Cohn, who supported the charter-commission measure. “When it’s an initiative that someone wants, it’s ‘just let the people decide.’”

Councilman Kevin McCarty, another charter-commission supporter, calls the cost issue “a red herring” and says that the strong-mayor proposal would be far more expensive than a charter commission. That measure likely would have created a ninth city council district, set off a whole new redistricting process, added a city council member and several political appointees to the city payroll.

And during the city council debate last week, Johnson acknowledged that strong mayor was likely to come back next year. “Maybe sooner,” he said.