Sacramento Tomorrow's strong-mayor plan is a mess

The latest strong-mayor proposal, to be debated this week by city council, is a mess

Sacramento Tomorrow unveiled its strong-mayor retread last week to the city council. The group wants us to think this effort is somehow basically different than Kevin Johnson’s Checks and Balances Act of 2012. So why title it the “2014 Checks and Balances Act,” hire the same consultants, and take money from the same businessmen to push it?

The Sacramento City Council will consider the measure on Tuesday, October 15, the first step on the way to the June 2014 ballot. Just like the old strong-mayor plan, the new one would give the mayor power to hire and fire the city manager, and also control the bureaucracy. The mayor could introduce and veto the budget, as well as ordinances.

To garner more support for the plan, Sacramento Tomorrow has tossed in provisions for an independent redistricting commission and new term limits for council members. This version of strong mayor also leaves us with an eight-member city council. In the event of a tie, Sacramento Tomorrow’s spokesman David Nagler says, “one idea is to have the mayor come in and break the tie.”

Terrible idea, and just one glaring problem in the measure, which Nagler says should take no more than two council meetings to vet.

Sacramento Tomorrow’s argument basically boils down to this: “It is time for the voters to decide on strong mayor.”

It’s a half-assed argument, which could be applied to anything. For example, it’s time voters decided on an ethics commission and campaign-finance reform and a full-time city council. Why? Because they haven’t yet.

There is nothing magical about the strong-mayor idea that makes it worthy of the ballot—other than the fact that it has been flogged nonstop by a certain stubborn segment of the business community for five years.

And, let’s be clear, strong mayor is not about “vision” or “accountability” or “checks and balances” or any of the warm and fuzzy words the consultants use. It’s about redistributing power.

Today, labor and business, developers and neighborhood groups try to influence and win as many seats on the city council as they can. Power is spread around.

Strong mayor creates a winner-take-all system, removing checks and tilting the balance. Neighborhood groups in particular will see their power diminished. Anybody not down with the winning team will be shut out.

So, does Sacramento Tomorrow have the votes? Probably. Bites figures it’s down to the Steves.

Councilman Steve Hansen is with Team K.J. much of the time, but maybe not this time. A year ago, when he was running for his council seat, he said pretty clearly that voters “don’t think charter reform or the strong mayor is a good idea. So let’s stop talking about it.” Last week, he told Bites he feels the same now.

Councilman Steve Cohn has been unpredictable, sometimes voting with the mayor on this issue, sometimes against.

Of course, any of the usual dissenters could vote yes just because they want to get it over with, and because they think voters will shoot it down anyway. And Cohn, Bonnie Pannell, Kevin McCarty and Darrell Fong are all short-timers getting ready to retire or go for higher office. None of them will have to put up with a strong mayor.

If the measure is to be placed on the June ballot, the city council will have to act by the end of the year. The compressed timeline is a problem, because this measure is a mess. The eight-member council is an obvious flaw. A fix would be to create a ninth council district, but that’s going to require a lot of thought and ultimately, cost a lot of money.

And why shoehorn term limits and redistricting in with strong mayor? The city council can create a redistricting commission on their own, anytime between now and 2020. As for term limits, consider the hell they’ve played on the state Legislature. Sacramento Tomorrow added these into the deal as some sort of sweetener. But the overall package makes no sense.

If the council really buys into the idea that “it is time” for voters to weigh in on strong mayor—it’s not, voters have expressed no interest—then at least let strong mayor stand on its own on the ballot, and let it have some competition.

Why should a small, self-selected group get to decide what is placed on the reform agenda? Why not let local community groups and good-government advocates—who have been working for years to improve Sacramento’s governance—put forth their ideas for reform? Bites suggests an ethics commission and a full-time council; others have ideas every bit as worthy as strong mayor.

The city council should at least give these community groups and their ideas the same access to the ballot that Sacramento Tomorrow is getting. Then let the voters decide.