Some reforms shoved aside by strong-mayor politics
It seemed like a reasonable compromise at the time. First, Mayor Kevin Johnson launched a “strong mayor” ballot measure to give himself unprecedented power in City Hall. Next, his fellow council members and community groups said, “Hold on, we have our own ideas for fixing City Hall.”
So in the spring, the Sacramento Charter Review Committee was formed, to look at a whole suite of possible reforms. Yes, the committee would consider increasing mayoral power and responsibility. But it would also look at other reforms, like the creation of an ethics commission, putting in place a system of instant runoff voting, term limits or a full-time city council.
Now it appears most of those ideas will be off the table, thanks to the mayor and city council’s insistence that a strong-mayor initiative go on the ballot in the next election in June of 2010.
One of the members of the charter review committee, Alan LoFaso, said he was disappointed by the new compressed schedule.
“I think voters deserve a full range of choices. Even a few more months would have helped that.”
When the 11-member committee was created in response to the strong-mayor proposal, Johnson voted in support of the idea. At that point, he had shelved his ballot initiative, in order to focus on the city’s budget crisis, he said.
The plan was for the committee to hold public hearings on an array of possible reforms, then to forward those ideas to the city council. The council could then decide to put a package of reforms before the voters, or ignore them.
But then in the spring, Johnson renewed his signature-gathering effort and insisted that his measure be placed on the earliest possible ballot, June 2010. On August 6, a strongly divided council voted 5-4 to go along with the mayor’s wishes.
That has put pressure on the committee to wrap up its work early.
The CRC is scheduled to give a formal set of recommendations to the council on November 3, but a preliminary list of recommendations is already beginning to take shape.
During a three-and-a-half-hour meeting on September 3, the CRC held votes on several key issues.
There was strong support on the panel for keeping a “unified” government and not allowing the mayor’s office to peel off and become a separate executive office—as Kevin Johnson is proposing. Under the panel’s proposal, the mayor would continue to sit and vote with the rest of the council. Only Chris Tapio, a political consultant appointed by the mayor to the committee, voted “no” on this recommendation.
Next up, the panel tackled the question of whether to allow the mayor to appoint critical charter officers: the city treasurer, city attorney and city clerk.
Johnson’s strong-mayor initiative would allow him to hire and fire all of those charter officers, as well as the city manager, the heads of the various departments (like parks and recreation, transportation and economic development) and even subordinate staff further down in the bureaucracy.
But there was little support on the charter review panel for giving the mayor these powers. Some critics of the mayor’s plan say his recent face-off with City Attorney Eileen Teichert underscores the need for an independent legal counsel. (See “Recuse me!,” SN&R Bites.)
Likewise, there was nervousness about giving the mayor power over other charter positions. CRC co-chairwoman JoAnn Fuller, who also works with the government watchdog group California Common Cause, noted that “The city clerk handles our elections.”
“Those really need to be above political influence,” she said.
On the other side of the argument were Tapio and land-use attorney Tina Thomas. Thomas was appointed by Councilman Rob Fong, who has been a vocal critic of the mayor. And she was a strong supporter of former mayor Heather Fargo’s re-election. But she made perhaps the most articulate argument for giving a future mayor more power over the city bureaucracy.
“The mayor is elected citywide, and he should be able to bring in his team. I want someone who is going to be effective in the policies that he or she campaigned on. They ought to have some powers to implement that agenda.”
The meeting was sparsely attended, but those members of the public who did speak were strongly opposed to giving the mayor too much authority.
Former mayor Anne Rudin urged the panel to keep the power over the charter officers out of the mayor’s hands. “Having them answerable to the mayor and the council sets up a system of checks and balances that would be lost.”
Ultimately, the CRC voted 7-3 against giving the mayor the power to hire and fire the city attorney, treasurer and clerk. John Taylor, a CRC member appointed by Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy, was absent from the September 3 meeting.
There was more support among the panel for giving the mayor the power to appoint the city manager—while leaving the other charter officers to the whole council.
“The mayor should have the power to choose his or her city manager,” said Grantland Johnson, who was appointed to the committee by Councilwoman Bonnie Pannell, and who himself served on both the city council and Sacramento County Board of Supervisors. “That’s a key person in implementing the mayor’s policy.”
But audience member John Shirey, who by day serves as executive director of the California Redevelopment Association, urged the panel against making the city manager the mayor’s political appointee. “The manager’s position becomes untenable. He constantly has to broker between the mayor and the council in order to survive. The manager becomes a politician.” Shirey might know; he served for a time as the city manager of Cincinnati during its transition to a strong-mayor system of government.
“If you really want to go that way, you really ought to change the city manager’s title. Because the manager really becomes the chief of staff,” Shirey added.
In the end, the panel voted 6-3 in favor of recommending a measure to the city council that would include giving the mayor the power to hire and fire the city manager. But the proposal will need seven votes to make it into the final recommendation to the council in November. The mayor’s appointee, Tapio, abstained.
The committee also made a preliminary recommendation not to propose term limits. But committee member Cecily Hastings suggested leaving the door open. “I think term limits are popular with voters,” said Hastings, who owns Inside Publications, and was appointed to the CRC by Councilman Steve Cohn.
She added that she wanted to hear more from the public before making a final recommendation to the council.
The committee was nearly unanimous in its agreement that any charter changes should take place after the next mayoral election in 2012.
None of these votes are final. “This is to give the public something to react to,” explained CRC chairman (and former Sacramento city manager) Bill Edgar. In addition to its regularly scheduled public meetings at City Hall, the CRC will hold several town-hall meetings around the city in late September and early October before putting the finishing touches on its final report. The November deadline was set in order to give the city council time to fashion the CRC’s recommendations into a ballot measure that would provide an alternative to the mayor’s initiative.
In may be hard for the public measure to compete, since the mayor has been able to rely on wealthy donors and his own personal resources to fund his ballot campaign.
In December and January, the CRC will present two “supplemental” reports to the council on issues like the creation of a citywide ethics commission, instant runoff voting and other possible reforms. But because they won’t make it into the November report, it’s unlikely that any of these ideas have a shot at making the June 2010 ballot. “It’s a real loss if we become so narrowly focused that we don’t get the full scope of what the public wants,” said Fuller.