Strong words: SN&R’s strong-mayor interview with Mayor Kevin Johnson

K.J. makes the case for Measure L

Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.

SN&R owner Jeff vonKaenel sat down with Mayor Kevin Johnson to hear him argue for Measure L, the strong-mayor initiative.

First, why is there a need for a strong mayor?

When you have smaller cities, you don’t necessarily need a mayor-council form of government. But when cities evolve and get bigger, you need to make decisions quicker, you need to be more nimble, you need to be more effective. …

Look at the larger cities in California—San Diego, L.A., Fresno, Oakland, San Francisco. They all have the strong-mayor form of government. That should be Sacramento’s next evolution. …

And thirdly, when the cities—you take Fresno and San Diego—when they brought strong mayor forward, they did it with a sunset. You try it for a period of time and, if the voters don’t like it, it reverts back to a weak-mayor form of government.

What’s wrong with the city manager being in charge of operations?

I have a very good relationship with the city manager, so I want to preface it with this is not directed at a city manager or any staff. It’s really about the institution. The city manager is the person that makes every decision day-to-day for the city, and that person is unelected. … What I’m proposing is that same authority gets transferred to the mayor, who’s elected. So, when you vote on the mayor, you know that person, you can hold [them] accountable. … The mayor would be the one to propose the budget, which the mayor can’t do now. And then the mayor would work with council to finalize that budget. The city manager, instead of reporting to nine bosses, he would report to one. So the buck stops in one place.

You’ve accomplished a lot under the weak-mayor system. What additional things do you think could happen under the strong-mayor system?

When I first proposed strong mayor, people were like, “It might be a good idea but let’s wait a little time, prove yourself, get a track record, let’s see what you can do.” And now here we are, six years later, [and people say] “You actually have been really effective, now you don’t need strong mayor.” That’s an example to me of moving the finish line, it’s a no-win situation. …

In spite of a system, we’ve been able to get a lot of things done, which is great. I created Think Big on the outside for a new arena, and that was great, and people fought like crazy and we galvanized as a community. Why should that be on the outside? That should be on the inside. I would like to see Think Big on the inside and that to me is the more strategic way of getting things done.

One of the big issues is campaign spending. To run a mayoral campaign in the future, it’s going to take a lot more money. Who gives money to campaigns? Developers, people impacted by city policy. The city manager, though, is divorced from electoral politics and fundraising. Isn’t that a good thing?

I would say that ultimately the voters have to hold the person accountable. And if I or the next mayor is going sideways and is not being accessible or overly influenced, then the onus is on all of us to make sure we run a candidate and get them. That’s the democracy we live in. There’s some pluses and minuses in the system we live in, and I think those happen in either form of government. When you have a city manager who is unelected, there are tons of decisions that are being made that none of us are even privy to. At all. With some of the same relationships that you’re talking about.

But if you make the mayor position stronger, then it makes the monied interests want to influence it more.

This power and authority already happens with the city manager.

But the city manager doesn’t have to raise campaign donations.

I know, but the same developers want to influence them. That’s all I want to establish. Without the public-campaign stuff, those same things are happening and you don’t even know about it. That’s No. 1. The city manager sitting down with these developers right now, having some conversations that none of us know about. …

The data is just not bearing out that this is a bad form of government because “People are being bought, so let’s go back to old form.” No body ever went back. … There’s a risk, there’s a little risk in anything we do. I will agree with that. We have to mitigate it; it’s incumbent upon all of us to make sure we have that watchful eye, to make sure there are no abuses.

That’s why when I say an independent budget analyst, I can’t propose something super out of whack or this third party is going to say, that doesn’t smell right. That to me is what I want for any mayor to have that check and balance in place.

The if the independent analysis says what you’re doing doesn’t make any sense, then you can decide or not decide to take that, right?

I’m saying the independent budget analyst. Say he’s on the council, and I’m the mayor, and I propose a budget, and we go back and forth. The independent budget analyst reports to the council and says what the mayor is proposing makes sense, great. Or what the mayor is proposing is off, then we can’t do it and I won’t be able to get it passed. I propose it to them, they get a chance to say yes or no on the budget. If they don’t say yes, I’m stuck.

But if the Congressional Budget Office says something makes no sense, lawmakers in D.C. don’t always listen.

You would like to think that eight or nine council members would not think it’s a good idea. That’s the check and balance you have. …

Let me go here. I’m just saying we’re creating another check and balance. There is an additional check and balance, could it still happen? Yes. I could propose a budget, they may not agree and then I could veto it, then they could override. … This is the check and balance. That’s good.

Let’s talk more about this. There’s the bully pulpit—and there’s the bully. Do you feel there are enough checks and balances in the strong-mayor system to prevent the latter?

The quickest way to rally the council is a mayor that overreaches. Then they become really strong to create a check and balance. It’s just not smart to do that.

One concern people have is that it would take a 75 percent majority to override your veto. That’s a high number—and some would argue that’s almost an impossible number to reach.

It’s strange. For the federal government to be in the very same position, to veto or get the super-majority, you need like 80 more votes. At the state, you need 18 more. We just need one. And it’s a temporary number, in terms of six out of eight, because once you have a ninth district, it’ll be six out of nine.

During the strong-mayor debate that we had in Oak Park, I think Steve Hansen commented on Oakland: Gov. Brown was good, but with the following mayors it has not been that smooth.

But that happens in any governance structure. That’s two different arguments. I’m saying Gov. Brown changed the governance structure, period. Because he felt that it’d be better. Bill Clinton told me a year or two ago that Gov. Brown is probably the smartest elected official on the face of the earth. And if he feels the governance structure is a right thing for accountability and voters, that’s a different argument that every mayor comes in is going to be good or great.

The other aspects you mentioned in terms of strong mayor—the ethics council, the neighborhood advisory board—could be done without the district, right? Without the strong mayor?

Correct. While that’s easy to say, let me give you an example: When I first got elected, we brought forward an audit and I couldn’t get our city to move forward with a top to bottom audit. It was free, too. As a result, we waited a year, year and a half, two years before we eventually did an audit. That’s not fair to the public and we’re not being responsible and good stewards. …

The other thing that I thought was really important was an independent budget analyst. We ended up getting signature to put on the ballot for an independent budget analyst. Council said, let’s not do that, let’s enact an ordinance ourselves so that we don’t have to go to the voters. And I’m thinking, great! That was in 2009/2010, we’re in 2014 we still do not have an independent budget analysis. So can council do it? Yes, but they have not done it. …

Any final thoughts?

This notion of a power grab. It’s just not real. It’s not a fair assessment. Why would the governor of California, Gov. Brown … the first thing he did in Oakland was change the governance from a weak-mayor to a strong-mayor. Why would he have done that if it was bad for everybody? And then the voters made it permanent, and he’s operating in that same system at the state. Why would he, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsome in San Francisco, why would they have that governance structure, why does he support it if it was bad? Darrell Steinberg, police and fire—these people would not be supporting this governance structure if it wasn’t good for, if it didn’t give us the chance to become even better. …

I’ll just close with this: It’s about a mentality. I want Sacramento to be a can-do city. I want us to do bigger and better things. I want the voters and everybody in this community to feel proud of their city. This is about progress, and this is about the logical next step. It’s a mentality, it’s an approach, it’s a mindset. To me, that’s where Sacramento is kind of standing up, taking our rightful seat in California. That we shouldn’t be second fiddle to San Diego, L.A. We shouldn’t be, we’re the capital of the eighth-largest economy. We need to assume that position in a real way, and I think we have a tremendous opportunity to do that.