On Mayor Kevin Johnson and the latest strong-mayor push

The latest strong-mayor push features different players—but still presumes to know the answers

Call it Strong Mayor 4.0. Some of the players are different, but the gist is the same: Backers want an executive mayor with greater power to write the budget and control the city bureaucracy.

Organizers of the new initiative—now going by the name Sacramento Tomorrow—say beyond that basic principle, their initiative is a blank slate.

“We are trying to be really genuine in saying none of this is preordained,” said David Nagler, a former lobbyist and biotech executive who was hired on to organize the effort.

How strong should the strong mayor be? How deep into layers of the bureaucracy should his power to hire and fire reach? Should other reforms, such as a redistricting commission or an ethics commission, be part of the package? These are all to be determined in Sacramento Tomorrow’s outreach process, said Nagler.

“We are going to go out in a broad-based way, talking to folks who have been excluded from the process in the past,” he explained. Only after that will the Sacramento City Council be asked to put a strong-mayor proposal on the ballot next year.

This time, the votes will probably be there.

Nagler said this effort is not related to Kevin “Boss” Johnson or his previous attempts to push strong mayor through. Certainly, there are some holdovers from Johnson’s old gang on the Sacramento Tomorrow advisory board. But there are also strong opponents of earlier strong-mayor schemes. For example, Heather Fargo’s former fundraiser, Ruth Gottlieb, will be money wrangler for Sacramento Tomorrow.

Poke around a bit more under the hood, and some other key parts start to look very familiar. The legal team is from the firm Nielsen Merksamer, which helped craft previous strong-mayor language for Johnson. Sacramento Tomorrow has also hired a company headed by Matt Eagan, once digital-media guy for Arnold Schwarzenegger, to build its website. That company lists the same address as David Townsend, Kevin Johnson’s campaign consultant.

Said Nagler, “Does David Townsend know about it? Absolutely.” But added neither Townsend nor Johnson are involved.

To their credit, The Sacramento Bee editorial board hasn’t gone gaga for Strong Mayor 4.0 yet and have rightly expressed concern that Sacramento Tomorrow has formed a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, which only discloses its expenditures once a year, and doesn’t have to disclose its donors at all.

Nagler told Bites the Sacramento Tomorrow advisory board is deciding now how much information the group will voluntarily make public. “We want to find a way to disclose the big donors, while not discouraging the small donors.”

That doesn’t wash. In election campaigns, small individual donations are legally required to be disclosed—right along with the big money from unions and developers and major PACs. There’s no good reason for Sacramento Tomorrow to use a nonprofit structure to keep any of its donors secret—not if it wants to claim more openness than past strong-mayor bids.

Didn’t voters say pretty clearly that they aren’t interested in charter reform when they rejected Measure M last year?

Nagler says no, it wasn’t the idea of charter reform but the mechanism of an elected charter commission that voters were uncomfortable with. “At best, it confused voters. At worst, it scared them.”

On this, Nagler is probably right, though Bites would argue that The Sacramento Bee and certain city council members like Angelique Ashby did a lot of the confusing and the scaring.

And the charter commission was, by definition, an open and democratic process, laid out in the California Constitution. A way for citizens to offer competing visions for better government, and a chance to write a city charter with broad support.

Bites appreciates the show of openness and inclusion by Sacramento Tomorrow. But it may mask just how preordained its proposal really is.

When Nagler was asked to step back and describe the problem his group is trying to solve, he replied, “The mayor cannot propose his vision for the city through the budget.”

That’s not a problem. That’s a particular policy solution desired by a small group of prominent citizens.

Problems are things like: Crime is too high. It’s too hard to start a business. Too many people need homes. It’s too hard to get to work on public transit. There aren’t enough good jobs.

Could these problems be better addressed with better governance? Almost certainly. Is Sacramento Tomorrow’s approach to reform the only one worth considering? Absolutely not. But when one group wants to get its way in politics, the best place to start is by narrowing the debate.

A truly public process, like a charter commission, starts with the question: How could city government be made better? As with all the strong-mayor plans before, Sacramento Tomorrow presumes to know the answer already.