Mayor’s race was rigged!

Alice Cooper.

Alice Cooper.

Once again, thanks to the magic of weekly journalism, this column is being written well before the results of Tuesday’s election.

And Bites is seriously disappointed about the way it all turned out.

After all, the race for Sacramento City Hall was destined to disappoint progressives, given the field, and given the election rules that guarantee only incumbents and millionaires have a shot at winning.

Perhaps now that it’s over, we should give some serious thought to the one intriguing proposal put forth by (then) candidate Kevin Johnson, and explore charter reforms that would increase the powers of the mayor’s office.

There are of course some very solid progressive arguments for keeping elected mayors weak. They stem from the progressive era and the reaction to the cronyism, nepotism and corruption seen in city halls back East. Not that any of that would ever happen here.

But charter reform would open the door to some other fundamental changes we need in city government, particularly in the area of election law.

It’s time to look at term limits. Many of Heather Fargo’s supporters were disappointed that she chose to run for another term. They would rather that she went out on a high note, having accomplished more than she got credit for in her eight years in office. And had she bowed out, there might have been a better, more progressive alternative to the Republican-backed Johnson. We needed an Obama locally—someone who brought both change and qualifications to the table.

And something is seriously wrong when none of the four city council members up for election have any competition. Bites wonders, is everybody really pretty much happy with the job Sandy Sheedy is doing? Or Rob Fong?

Bites thinks quite highly of both council members, but knows folks in each of their districts hate their guts. We should have heard from them this election season. Term limits is probably the only thing that can trump the ability of incumbents to raise obscene amounts of money election cycle after election cycle.

Which brings us to reform No. 2—real campaign-finance reform. You shouldn’t have to be an incumbent or a millionaire to run a serious campaign for local office. We have a public-financing system that, in theory, was written to keep elections competitive. In fact, it was written by incumbents to keep their own seats safe. The laws give a dollar-per-dollar match to candidates who opt into the system. But candidates first have to raise very high amounts to prove they are “viable.” Then there are a slew of arbitrary rules. Candidates who use public financing are forbidden to take contributions from out-of-town or out-of-state donors, for example.

But other candidates can funnel all the out-of-state cash into the race that they want. So we get people like Alice Cooper and Warren Buffett trying to influence our elections. At the very least, Bites suggests beefing up the current public-financing rules to make for a more even playing field. And we ought to enforce strict spending caps for all candidates.

There are of course other schemes. Rob Kerth, director of the Midtown Business Association and a SMUD board member, suggests a much more elegant system: Give each candidate who gets onto the ballot two free mailers. That’s it. They get two shots to make their best case to the voters. The rest they have to make up in free media and volunteers.

Finally, we really ought to administer some sort of civics test to our political hopefuls. This one probably wouldn’t survive the inevitable court challenges that would follow, but it seems that candidates should show at least some familiarity with the city they want to govern.

They ought to know something about Sacramento’s institutions, like Second Saturday. They ought to know what communities are inside the city limits and which aren’t. And they ought to have at least visited City Hall—during regular business hours—and attended a city-council meeting or two.

That’s pretty much it. Another needed reform would be to cut North Natomas loose from the city and let it become its own underwater gangland. The banks are just going to take it anyway. But that’s really for another column.