“Let the people Vote” effort backfiring with charter-reform proposal

The funniest things happen when you run around hollering, “Let the people vote!”

The mayor and his allies in the police and fire unions and at the Chamber of Commerce and The Sacramento Bee all beat their chests and jumped up and down in defense of the right to vote—but only on a narrowly crafted strong-mayor proposal that served a particular set of special interests.

Instead the council voted, 7-2, to ask voters if they want to approve creation of an elected charter commission to hold public hearings and open up the city charter to a range of possible reforms.

A final vote is pending on putting the charter commission to the November ballot. But the “let the people vote” crowd is trying hard to get the charter reform genie back in the bottle.

Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, an ally to the public-safety unions, now says she’ll vote to nix the commission. Ashby says the costs of the commission are unknown and likely too great at this time. She supported putting Johnson’s charter reform plan on the ballot. But not this one.

“Of course we need charter reform,” she told Bites. “I’m just not sure it’s time to create a body of 15 new elected officials. Is charter review worth $1 million right now?”

Perhaps not. But what’s the alternative? Rewriting the city’s constitution on the cheap—by contracting it out to the special interests?

Keep in mind that charter commissioners won’t make any salary or per diem. Sure, they’ll need some staff support from the city. But consider that we have one assistant city manager, John Dangberg, who by his own account works on the issue of an NBA arena full time. He’s basically the No. 2 guy in the city bureaucracy, making $189,000 a year. His job description right now is “arena wrangler/parking privatizer.” And that’s hardly the extent of city manpower tied up in that project.

We also spent $500,000 on professional consultants to help craft an arena subsidy plan. And just going ahead with the “request for proposals” phase of privatizing the city’s parking system to pay for a new arena will likely cost more than $1 million.

The charter commission will cost much less than the arena project. And unlike the arena project, voters will get to decide whether the costs are worthwhile.

No one has been flogging this cost issue harder than the police and fire unions. It’s a red herring. But perhaps what they are really afraid of is this: Articles XVIII and XIX of the city charter.

Back in the late 1990s, the police and fire unions went to the ballot to get binding arbitration written into the city charter.

About 85 percent of the city budget is spent on public safety, the public-safety unions have tremendous clout and binding arbitration is part of that power. If real charter reform goes forward and taxpayer groups start trying to eliminate binding arbitration, well, that would be ironic.

Of course, over the next few weeks, the same folks who said we desperately need charter reform will desperately try to kill charter reform.

If it survives into the spring, we ought to bring back the election public-financing fund to help smart citizens with integrity, but little money, to run for commissioner.

We should at least impose strict campaign contribution limits. Otherwise, the unions and the business groups will stack the commission with their own people. We narrowly avoided having our city charter hijacked by the special interests once. Better not give up now.