Suit to kill

If Kevin Johnson wins his strong-mayor campaign, he may look back and say last week was pivotal. On December 1, K.J.’s opponents filed a lawsuit against the city to try and get Johnson’s strong-mayor initiative taken off of the ballot. In the process, they may be giving up some of the political high ground they had enjoyed.

The plaintiff is Bill Camp, secretary of the Sacramento Central Labor Council, and a vocal critic of the strong-mayor initiative. Camp was a big supporter of Johnson’s mayoral bid, but, like a lot of other folks, was alienated by K.J.’s power grab.

The lawsuit’s backers are the Sacramento Sierra Building Trades Council and the Sacramento County Democratic Party. These two groups have joined forces to form an organization called SAVE Sacramento, and they’ve hired heavyweight political lawyer Lance Olson to take the measure to court.

They argue that the measure is a sweeping “revision” of the city charter, not just an amendment. After all, the SMI changes the basic form of city government, giving the mayor powers beyond any city executive in California.

Any change to the city charter has to be approved by voters. But Olson says the state constitution clearly requires a different process for charter revisions than for mere amendments of the city charter.

“The city charter is our constitution. It was contemplated there would be a very deliberative and inclusive process before changing the form of government.”

Bites agrees there ought to be such a process. But will the court? Article XI, Section 3 of the state constitution makes it clear that voters can adopt a charter, and they can also amend, revise or appeal a charter. But the same section reserves the power of creating or revising a charter to the city council or to a formal charter commission—or so the argument goes.

It’s an interesting legal question. But it’s also an enormously risky question to ask. Much of the public will just hear, “The special interests are trying to deny your right to a vote.” That’s more or less what Johnson’s supporters have been saying since the lawsuit was announced—that SAVE Sacramento is thwarting the will of those who signed the petitions and legally qualified this thing for the ballot.

“It doesn’t matter if there are 50,000 signatures on a petition,” replies Olson. “We have a constitution; that trumps everything else.”

Still, by most measures, the SMI was already foundering badly. Some of K.J.’s strongest allies, like City Councilman Steve Cohn, are against it. Then there’s Bernard Bowler, who appeared in support of the lawsuit at the SAVE Sacramento press conference last week, though he didn’t speak. Bowler is a business man and former member of the board of directors of Johnson’s St. Hope organization. He left the board, without any public explanation, in March. Whether Bowler’s objections to the SMI are philosophical or personal, he’s not saying, but K.J.’s list of former supporters is significant. And internal polls show the initiative garnering less than 30 percent support among likely voters.

There has been a growing consensus around City Hall that the SMI was headed for defeat on election day. So why mess with a good thing? Bites tried to ask Bill Camp and Matt Kelly (secretary of the Building Trades Council), isn’t there a risk the lawsuit will backfire? Kelly responded, “It’s like being in a prizefight—you take every swing you can.”

Maybe so. Or maybe the mayor’s opponents just sucker-punched themselves.