In most of the bigger cities in the U.S., there’s a kind of president-congress relationship in city hall. The city council debates and passes new policies, and the mayor has some veto powers and spends most of the time tending to the operations of the city. But in Sacramento, the 35th largest city in the country and the capital of California, the mayor has just one vote on a 9-person city council. A movement is underway to change that system to put more power into the hands of the mayor, an idea being aggressively pursued by Mayor Kevin Johnson.
Johnson is working to convince his fellow council members to let the voters of the city decide whether he – or his successor, should he not win re-election this June – can take on more power in the city. It’s known as a strong-mayor system, and is commonly thought of as having the mayor act as chief executive of the city. It’s a system used in most major cities, like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, and even smaller big cities like Tulsa, Minneapolis and Cleveland. According to the Strong Mayor-Council Institute, 17 of the 25 most populous cities in the country operate under a strong-mayor system. Johnson wants to make Sacramento number 30.
The current system in Sacramento is a council-manager structure, in which the council acts as the legislature and appoints a city manager to handle tasks like setting the budget and governing department heads. Johnson argues that this unelected city manager has too much power to not be chosen by the people. Under his strong-mayor proposal, the mayor would take over many of the responsibilities now handled by the city manager, a position that would be appointed by and serve at the discretion of the mayor.
“What we believe is that you need to have direct accountability between voters and the chief executive,” says Kunal Merchant, Johnson’s chief of staff.
Creating these checks and balances, though, would require changing the city’s charter to reorganize the power structure. A movement in opposition to Johnson’s proposal, led by Councilman Kevin McCarty, argues that changing the charter is too big of a process to undertake hastily. He’s suggested first asking the voters if they want to change the charter, and if so, to elect a 15-person commission to take on that task.
"It provides a grass-roots, citizen-driven effort," McCarty told the Sacramento Bee.
Both Johnson’s proposal and the elected charter commission idea are going up for debate at the city council’s February 7 meeting when they'll decide which, if either, should be placed before voters, probably in the November election. Business interests and public safety unions are in support of the strong-mayor proposal, but others worry it will put too much power into the hands of one person – a person who may be more susceptible to the desires of special interests and campaign contributors.
For the city council, this will just be the latest in a long string of conversations about the strong-mayor idea, which Johnson first proposed a week after taking office in 2008. Then called the Strong Mayor Initiative, the idea garnered enough voter signatures to qualify for the June 2010 ballot, but was stripped from the election after a judge ruled that such a city charter-changing proposal would have to be proposed by an elected body, not through the initiative process.
Johnson tried again later in 2010 to have the city council propose the idea, but it was voted down. He’s hoping to get more support behind his latest proposal, which has slightly altered rules about term limits and stricter guidelines to govern how the strong mayor could remove the city manager. As of January 19, the Sacramento Bee estimated Johnson only had the support of two other members of the 9-person council.
But Merchant counters the charter commission idea would just be more of a delay, and would continue to stymie efforts to address citywide problems.
“There’s a sense of process fatigue and bureaucracy fatigue among people,” Merchant says. “Let’s let the people vote. There’s no better commission to decide something like this than a vote of the people.”
He argues that the current system is preventing progress in the city, which grew 14.6 percent between 2000 and 2010, and now has more than 466,000 residents.
“We’ve had this same governance system for about a hundred years. And for a lot of years it worked. It doesn’t work any more,” Merchant says. “You can’t run a major metropolitan community with the size and sophistication and complexity of Sacramento the way you run a small town. We’re a city that has major problems that were trying to solve in a system that can only produce minor fixes.”
The current system is dominated by district-based problem solving, he says, with no advocate for larger citywide issues like infrastructure, crime, and its struggling economy. Downtown revitalization and a proposed new arena have been high priorities for Johnson, a former NBA player.
“But you need someone out in front who’s going to be accountable for that and has the tools to make them happen,” Merchant says. “And we just haven’t had them.”
Johnson calls the strong-mayor plan "an historic opportunity to update our city as part of its natural growth." He still has a few days to try to convince his fellow city council members to get behind his idea – a proposal that would put more power into his hands by taking it out of theirs.