On strong mayor, Measure L, Kevin Johnson, and whether mayor-council cities really do it better

K.J. says Measure L will revolutionize Sacramento. Critics call it a power grab.

Mayor Kevin Johson appears at a U.S. Conference of Mayors event Monday.

Mayor Kevin Johson appears at a U.S. Conference of Mayors event Monday.

photo by lisa baetz

Kevin Johnson is not about subtle. “The other side says, ‘Stop. Don’t. We can’t,'” the mayor riffed at a recent debate on his fourth bid to bring his strong-mayor plan to Sacramento City Hall.

“But we want to say, ’Yes. Go. Progress.’”

Simple slogans—progress, accountability—backed up by a lot of campaign money, have gotten him this far.

Voters will finally give strong mayor an up or down vote on November 4. Measure L’s backers—and many opponents, too—say the debate should not be about Kevin Johnson, but about what’s best for the city.

But Johnson is Measure L’s loudest cheerleader. His name is on the paperwork for the campaign committee, which is taking in heaps of cash from developers and other business interests. It is hard to separate the man from his ballot measure.

But let’s do it.

“Whenever you consider making a change like this, you have to ask, ’What is the problem we are trying to solve?’” said Bob Benedetti, visiting scholar at the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State.

The problem, as Measure L supporters frame it, is this: The current system—in which the city council hires a professional city manager to run the bureaucracy—is out of date. Other large cities have strong-mayor systems. It’s too hard to get things done, and voters don’t know who to hold accountable.

The Measure L campaign promises strong mayor will “make it easier for us to balance the budget, create jobs, and reduce crime.”

Opponents counter that Measure L is a “power grab” by Johnson and his wealthy backers. And they say a council-manager system can accomplish anything that a strong-mayor system can—just look at the Kings arena.

And, for the most part, that’s where the debate ends. Voters are left with simple slogans or their feelings about giving Kevin Johnson more power.

But political scientists have studied the differences between strong-mayor and strong-city manager systems of government. And we can look at the experiences of large California cities that have made the switch in the last few years: Oakland, San Diego and Fresno.

While backers cheer, “Yes. Go. Progress,” and opponents declaim, “Power grab,” we can ask: “Evidence?”

World-class government

“I don’t think anything is broken,” said state Sen. Darrell Steinberg, when asked what problem Measure L fixes. “I just think we can do more,” he told SN&R, adding that city government needs to be “more nimble and responsive.”

“We need to take a step back and ask, ’What’s best for a growing city?’” said Steinberg—who might run for mayor in the future (“I would certainly be more inclined if the measure passed,” he said).

This is a variation of the “world-class” argument: that Sacramento has reached a certain size and sophistication and it has outgrown its old governance system.

Under the new system, the mayor will hire and fire the city manager, thus controlling the city bureaucracy. The city council would get to confirm the mayor’s appointment.

“You really ought to change the city manager’s title. Because the manager really becomes the chief of staff.” That’s how John Shirey—Sacramento’s current city manager—put it when he testified against a previous version of strong mayor back in 2009. (At the time, Shirey was head of the California Redevelopment Association and not yet facing the prospect of becoming Johnson’s chief of staff.)

Under strong mayor, the mayor would introduce the city budget and any other legislation he chooses. The city council would have eight members and legislation could be passed with five votes—a tie vote means a motion fails. And the mayor could veto any legislation, and use a line-item veto to strike provisions from any budget the council approves.

The council can only override the mayor’s veto with six out of eight votes—or 75 percent. Think of it as a “super-duper majority,” making the mayor’s veto stronger than that of the U.S. president or governor of California. Benedetti, who was in favor in previous strong-mayor plans, said he’s “more on the fence” about this one, in part because of the unusually strong veto power.

Currently, the city council is required to meet every week. Under the strong-mayor system, the council would only be required to meet twice a month—further de-emphasizing the role of city council.

This strong-mayor system is common in large and diverse cities like Sacramento. In fact, the Measure L campaign says Sacramento is an “outlier” because it doesn’t have strong mayor.

But, in fact, Sacramento’s form of government is also typical for a city of its size, about 475,000 people. Among U.S. cities in the 250,000 to 500,000 population range, about 50 percent have mayor-council (strong-mayor) and 48 percent have council-manager systems. For cities between a half-million and 1 million people, 64 percent have mayor-council governments, and 32 percent have the council-manager form.

Among California’s 10 biggest cities, the split is even—five have strong-mayor, five have council-manager forms.

Again, strong mayor is more prevalent among the five largest cities. San Jose is a prominent exception, with 1 million people and a council-manager government like Sacramento’s.

Johnson makes another comparison: “How many world-class cities are led by weak mayor systems?”

Well, cities that are frequently cited by Sacramento civic leaders as models—like Portland, Ore., or San Antonio and Austin, Texas—all have “weak mayor” systems. Portland’s commission model actually distributes more power to district representatives.

And Phoenix, the city that Mayor Johnson has often held up as a model, also has a council-manager system, just like Sacramento.

A zero-sum game

Sacramento adopted its council-manager government in 1920, when the progressive movement was still in swing. The council-manager form was a reaction to party bosses and political patronage.

The proponents of Measure L argue that Sacramento’s government hasn’t changed significantly in almost 100 years and it needs an upgrade to meet 21st-century problems. Critics of Measure L argue that strong mayor is actually a step backward, trying to meet 21st-century problems with a 19th-century governance system.

Either way, a quick review of Sacramento’s history reveals that Sacramento city government has actually changed quite a bit over the last few decades.

One of the most significant changes came in 1970, when Sacramento moved to the district election of city council members. In his book, Midtown Sacramento: Creative Soul of the City, historian William Burg says the 1970 shift was “as dramatic” as the reforms of 1920.

Under the old system of at-large elections, the council tended to be dominated by white men from the wealthiest parts of the city. “When we went to district elections, it distributed power more evenly,” said Anne Rudin, who was subsequently elected to the city council and would later serve two terms as mayor.

In her freshman year on the council, when the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce invited the new city council members to lunch at the Sutter Club, Rudin was excluded because she was a woman. Still, she said, district elections were the part of the movement for a “more democratic city that gives opportunity to everyone.”

“That’s how we managed to broaden the outlook of the council, and broaden its politics,” Rudin recalled.

One of the main criticisms of Measure L is that it will diminish the power of neighborhoods and district representatives. “It’s a zero-sum game. When you strengthen the mayor, you weaken the council,” said Benedetti.

Steinberg has a different theory: “The truth is this proposal has the potential to strengthen the city council.” He makes an analogy to state government, and his own recent role as a legislative leader of a caucus that has its own power base, its own vision and set of policy priorities. “This gives the council room to grow and develop its own identity separate from the mayor.”

Strong-mayor supporters also included language in Measure L requiring city council to establish a neighborhood advisory committee “for the purpose of considering the interests of the city’s neighborhoods.”

Another provision of Measure L creates an independent redistricting commission to draw city council district lines every 10 years. And another creates an office of “independent budget analyst,” which would report to the city council. And Measure L requires the council to pass legislation for a new ethics committee to monitor political conflicts of interest and other concerns.

Councilman Steve Hansen argues against Measure L at an event last month.

But the details of new ethics and neighborhood-advisory committees are left entirely up to the city council—there is nothing in Measure L about their powers and responsibilities. And the mayor can veto anything the council puts forward.

And as Paula Lee with the Sacramento County League of Women Voters explained, “The council could put those reforms in place right now if they wanted to.” No change to the city charter is necessary. In fact, it may be even harder to get strong ethics reforms under a strong-mayor system, given the mayor’s new veto power.

Likewise, the independent budget analyst provision is not quite what it appears.

“We have that on the books right now. We just haven’t funded it,” said Steve Hansen, a city council member who opposes Measure L.

The provisions for the ethics committee, budget analyst and neighborhood committee are meant to add balance to the proposal. But critics say they are window dressing.

And in many ways Measure L is a move away from the reforms of 1970, which had distributed power more evenly throughout the city.

Strong mayors, weak results

Measure L backers say strong mayor will mean “fewer bureaucratic roadblocks” and make it easier to get things done. But the evidence from other strong-mayor cities is mixed.

In Oakland in 1998, voters approved Jerry Brown’s strong-mayor plan at the same time they elected him mayor. In Brown’s first year, he announced a plan to bring 10,000 new residents to downtown Oakland. He called it the 10K plan.

Ten years later, the 10K plan had achieved about half its goal, according to an analysis by the San Francisco Chronicle, falling short in part because of the national housing downturn during that decade.

Brown also presided over a significant spike in crime during that same period, And Brown’s successor, Ron Dellums, was widely criticized as an ineffectual mayor. The current mayor, Jean Quan, has also struggled to govern and trails in polls going into this fall’s election.

“I think the result is that structure doesn’t matter much. What matters more is who you elect,” said Helen Hutchison, with the Oakland chapter of the League of Women Voters.

In Fresno, Mayor Alan Autry, an actor and former NFL player who “didn’t know much about government,” seemed to flounder in the strong-mayor system, said Tom Holyoke, a political science professor at CSU Fresno. “There was a lot of sprawl and a downtown that was largely abandoned. And Autry seemed unable to do anything about it.”

When Ashley Swearengin came into office, Holyoke said she was better able than Autry to take advantage of the strong-mayor system and tackle the revitalization of Fresno’s downtown. Holyoke concludes that “the quality of government depends heavily on the quality of the mayor.”

“Whereas under the old system there was only so much damage a mayor could do, but there was also only so much good they could do,” he said.

But there’s not much evidence—anecdotal or empirical—that strong-mayor cities are actually better at getting things done.

Much of San Diego’s signature redevelopment—including the Gaslamp Quarter and the Petco Park area—were accomplished before voters there approved strong mayor.

In Sacramento, City Councilman Hansen notes that the council just pushed through a financing plan for a new Kings arena downtown, changed rules to make it easier to build big-box stores and approved the controversial McKinley Village in East Sacramento, all without strong mayor.

And political scientists say there is no evidence at all that strong-mayor cities are better at creating jobs or reducing crime—the things that the Measure L campaign promises.

Among California’s 10 largest cities, there is no discernible pattern or difference between strong-mayor cities and other cities when it comes to crime rates or unemployment.

Jessica Trounstine at UC Merced has reviewed the academic literature and done several of her own studies comparing city-government forms. She has measured responsiveness of government, spending patterns, the passage of municipal bonds and the election of minority officeholders, and in all cases, she says the form of government makes no difference.

“The political science evidence is that there are just too many factors to say that government form matters in terms of policy outcome,” said Trounstine.

Accountable to whom?

In 2003, the FBI raided San Diego City Hall as part of a bribery investigation that would come to be known as “Strippergate” and ultimately led to prison for one council member.

In 2003 and 2004, serious fiscal mismanagement was exposed and San Diego was dubbed “Enron-by-the-Sea” by The New York Times. After the devastating Cedar Fire in 2003, citizens learned the city council had cut funding for firefighting helicopters.

Jim Ingram, a political science professor at San Diego State University who helped to write the city’s strong-mayor law and advocate for its passage in 2004, said this “perfect storm” of scandals convinced voters City Hall needed reform.

But Ingram says there have been unintended consequences as well. When San Diego Mayor Bob Filner’s sexual harassment scandals broke in 2013, citizens found out it would be very difficult to recall a mayor. And there has been “increased political enmity” between the mayor’s office and the city council since the change, said Ingram.

For example, this year San Diego’s city council passed a minimum-wage increase. The current mayor, Kevin Faulconer, vetoed it. The council overrode the mayor’s veto, business groups then gathered signatures for a ballot measure in hopes that voters will overturn the minimum-wage hike this fall.

But Ingram also argues—perhaps counterintuitively—that more combative politics can be good for the city. “I think the battles between the mayor and the council have increased transparency,” he said. They have focused public attention on these policy fights, and voters can see the players battling it out on the public stage.

Supporters say voters expect the mayor—directly elected by them—to be the one running the city. The city manager is practically anonymous to the average voter, but the mayor is known to voters and has incentives to respond to them. “It gives voters someone to listen to them,” Benedetti said.

At least that’s the idea. “People say the mayor is more accountable, but that’s not really true,” said Norma Damashek, former president of the League of Women Voters in San Diego. “Before, the mayor had to sit with the council. Now he doesn’t have to listen to the public. And you never know who goes in and out of his office.”

Damashek says even accessing information can be more difficult. “If you are in with the mayor it’s easier. But if you are on the outs with the mayor, it becomes very hard.”

The political scientists SN&R spoke to said that the push for strong mayor is at least in part about increasing access for powerful interest groups. “It’s easier for them to go to one person to get what they want,” said Benedetti.

Easier than trying to influence a large and diverse city council, where each member has their own agendas and their own constituents to look out for.

This point is illustrated by Brian Rice, head of the Sacramento firefighters union, who said at a recent strong-mayor forum that Measure L provides a “clear path” to the person in charge. “I want to be able to poke my finger in the chest of the person who is making the decision.”

Developers and outside players like former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who shares much of Johnson’s agenda for public schools, have put in about $250,000 to support Measure L so far. Labor support is split, with many in building trades favoring strong mayor. But it’s been the Plumbers and Pipefitters union, old foes of Johnson, who have given the most to the “no” side. (See the chart to the right for the top contributors to pro- and anti-L causes.)

“Every reform has a political context,” said historian Mark Paul, a former Sacramento Bee editorial-page writer and author of California Crackup. “People don’t change the rules of the game for some abstract good government purpose. They change the rules of the game because they believe it will give them a certain political advantage.”

Either form of government can be made a tool of special interests. But Trounstine still sees the strong-mayor system as more competitive.

“I think the best chance we have to ward off all this usurping of democracy is to maintain competition. In some ways, I think [strong mayor] makes the politics more visible, and I believe that can be a good thing in the long run.”

Then, she added, “Of course, in the short term it could make it easier for the people who are winning to continue to win.”

So far, there’s not much evidence that voters are interested in changing the rules of the game. Hansen commissioned an opinion poll last summer which shows likely voters were opposed the measure by about a 2-to-1 ratio. That was before Yes on Measure L started its media campaign, and before it picked up big endorsements, like The Sacramento Bee.

Still, the poll suggests Measure L had a lot of ground to make up in a short time. And in the absence of something like a Strippergate scandal, voters may be feeling fairly sanguine about their current government.

Indeed, in Hansen’s poll, voters give Mayor Johnson pretty high marks when asked about his performance in office. And 61 percent of those polled said the city was moving in the “right direction,” while 29 percent said the city was on the “wrong track.”

And the mayor’s ability to get what he wants—on the arena, for example, or the big-box ordinance—may be one of the strongest arguments against strong mayor. “If it’s working, why throw out the system?” said Hansen.