It ain’t over

It’s hard to imagine what freaky sequence of events would lead the Sacramento City Council to decide, by July 20, to put Kevin Johnson’s strong-mayor-lite initiative on the November ballot. If you’re Lauren Hammond or even Steve Cohn, aren’t you more likely to tell the mayor to go pound sand than to switch your earlier vote?

Of course, there is an argument for giving the mayor exactly what he wants. Team K.J. says they won’t quit until the voters say quit. Well, if K.J.’s opponents are correct and there’s no public appetite for SMI, why not put it on the ballot, shut it down and move on?

Maybe it’s because if SMI gets on the ballot, it just might win.

This year, next year or the year after that—once strong mayor is scheduled for a vote, we enter K.J. land, where winners are determined by who has the most money and the most repeatable talking points. Even the Sacramento Central Labor Council and the Democratic Party of Sacramento County can’t beat Johnson at that game.

But before we go there, Bites has a couple more observations: Back in early June when City Manager Gus Vina submitted his city budget to the Sacramento City Council, the mayor hated Vina’s proposal to impose “brownouts” at some area fire stations. He even held a press conference to condemn the closures. Not so surprising; the firefighters union backs Johnson and the SMI. And Johnson’s aides told Bites that if strong mayor were in place, Vina’s brownouts likely wouldn’t have made it into the budget.

You can have a serious debate about whether the fire-station proposal was good policy. But it needed to be on the table, and a scaled-back version wound up as part of the city’s balanced budget. That’s the beauty of having an independent city manager: He leads with his expertise, not according to whatever interest group is bankrolling the mayor’s campaigns.

The city budget this year was horrible, of course. Worst budget ever. But in the end, it was balanced and on time. A strong-mayor system will introduce vetoes, two-thirds vote requirements to override the mayor and general gridlock. More importantly, it will insert political favoritism into the creation of the budget in a way that it hasn’t been for more than 100 years.

If you want to see what the budget process looks like under SMI, take a stroll about three blocks south of City Hall to the state Capitol. Then come talk to Bites about leadership, accountability and getting things done.

In fact, K.J. may not ultimately need the council’s support. Themayor’s critics will tell you that an earlier, even more godawful version of SMI—call it SMI-heavy—as thrown out by the courts because it was unconstitutional. (Hell, Bites has probably said something to that effect.) But it’s not exactly true. The court just put it in limbo for now, pending a trial on whether such a profound charter overhaul can be placed on the ballot by a signature-gathering campaign like the one bankrolled by K.J. and his supporters.

That case is basically on hold, but if the mayor doesn’t get strong-mayor lite onto the ballot this November, there’s nothing stopping him from finishing the court fight. And what if he wins? A lot of you con-law types out there are pretty confident that won’t happen. Bites envies your optimism.

Of course, Johnson could take SMI-heavy off the table anytime, as a show of good faith. Or he could use it as threat to advance his strong-mayor agenda. Hmm … which will he choose?