Transparent charter reform trumping strong-mayor push

Now let’s see how serious Mayor Kevin Johnson is about letting the people vote.

There’s clearly no appetite on the Sacramento City Council for Johnson’s latest strong-mayor initiative, no matter how many times he and his surrogates repeat, somewhat cynically, “Let the people vote.”

But there finally appears to be a bit of daylight for charter reform done the right way—led by the people of Sacramento, not the special interests.

On February 7, the council will consider a fall ballot measure on creation of an elected charter commission. If approved by voters, the commission will—through a transparent public process—study and propose updates to the city’s constitution.

It’s an idea Councilman Kevin McCarty proposed nearly three years ago. Strong-mayor proponents rejected it, afraid that they wouldn’t be able to control the outcome. They were right, of course.

The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board—speaking of K.J.’s surrogates—says that the charter commission idea is just an attempt to delay and kill charter reform.

It’s funny, because the late-mayor Joe Serna, the guy evoked so often by strong-mayor fanboys (and girls) embraced just this approach for his city.

After he was elected in 1992, Serna said he wanted to set up a charter-review commission to explore whether the city needs a full-time city council and a strong-mayor form of government. Under Serna’s plan, the commission would vet all of its ideas in public, before putting any reforms on the ballot.

“I want it done slowly and deliberately. This is not something you want to rush into,” Serna told the Bee at the time.

Other priorities elbowed in. Later Serna’s successor, Heather Fargo, supported a “full-time” mayor measure, which voters also supported at the ballot.

Johnson doesn’t have near the same consensus-building chops that Fargo did. But McCarty might.

The charter commission process was spelled out, in detail, by the city attorney back in 2010, though no one paid much attention at the time.

The measure would consist of two questions. The first is simple: “Shall a charter commission be elected to propose a new charter?”

Hell of a concept, asking Sacramentans first if they want to change their constitution, instead of assuming it.

If voters do want to open up the charter, they’ll be asked at the same time to vote for 15 commissioners to lead the effort. The idea is to get a good representative cross section of the city

By state law, the commission will have two years to hold hearings and craft a new charter. Not an overgenerous amount of time, if we want to get it right.

No doubt, some of the folks who run for commissioner will be political, and special interests will try to game the process. The police union, chamber of commerce and downtown developers come immediately to mind.

But in contrast to strong mayor, the charter commission will do all of its business in the open. As McCarty notes, “The mayor’s plan was written in the back room, by the political lawyers and the pollsters. This will be a ground-up, citizen-driven process.”

By the way, the mayor had the right idea when he also proposed an ethics committee (another McCarty idea recycled from a couple of years back), and an independent redistricting commission.

The council ought to pass an ethics component as soon as possible, and put the redistricting commission on the fall ballot alongside the charter commission.

We could have taken this more open, transparent and legally sound path long ago. Hopefully we won’t miss the chance again.