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Opinion: Sacramento would be better with a ‘strong mayor’

Kevin Johnson, Mayor, City of Ssacramento

About eleven months from now, voters in Sacramento will face many important decisions as they enter the voting booth. Prominent among these will be their choice about whether to change the current City Charter to overhaul city government by passing the Sacramento Checks and Balances Act of 2014. The referendum asks the citizens of Sacramento if they want to go from the current ‘weak mayor-council’ system which has been in place here for nearly a century to a strong mayor-council system which is prevalent in most large urban areas.

The question on the ballot will read as follows: “Shall the City of Sacramento Charter be revised to: change to a mayor-council government; make the mayor chief executive officer who appoints/removes the city manager, proposes the budget, and has ordinance and budget veto powers; create an independent redistricting commission; require a Code of Ethics Ordinance and Sunshine Ordinance; establish an Office of Independent Budget Analyst; and make other government process changes; with most changes subject to voter re-approval by 11/03/2020?”

Much has been made in the local press about how this is a disguised power grab by the current mayor, Kevin Johnson, and that it is a minor issue when more pressing matters exist for the city. Arguably, both are true; however, as someone who grew up under a strong mayor-council form of government, this writer can tell you that it does a very important advantage. It makes the person holding the office of Mayor more responsible for what city government does…and more importantly, DOESN’T do…for the citizens of the entire city.

Lack of response by city departments to problems often are ignored since the current model gives both the City Manager and the Mayor little power to hold the department heads accountable for their actions and inaction. Since the City Manager is basically the servant of eight masters(the eight Council Members), he is not in a position to address city-wide issues; the Mayor, even a forceful personality like the current one, has little real power to do anything.

Issues such as pockets of high unemployment, poor housing, and unfettered illegal dumping are not being addressed under the current governmental structure. Further, when issues pop up such as the under-reported instances of the burning of vacant properties in what may be squatter-related fires in several areas of the city(more on this in an upcoming story) and the lack of response by city government to tear down these properties when appropriate, it is obvious that a change is needed.

In the preparation of writing this story, I had the opportunity to reach to two friends back in my hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin: Mayor Keith Bosman and Alderperson(Council Member in Sacramento-speak) Anthony Kennedy.

After discussing the current system here in Sacramento, Mayor Bosman commented, “There has to be someone in charge, someone with whom the buck stops, in dealing with city issues.”

Both gentlemen did agree that in either system, the strong-mayor system forces the Mayor and the City Council need to work together and be able to address issues together. “The system works in such a way that for a Mayor to get his/her agenda passed, a majority of the Council has to go along with that agenda; the Council, in turn, is limited in many instances by the power of the mayoral veto which is hard to overturn,” Bosman stated.

When addressing the term limits for the Mayor but not the City Council members which are built in Sacramento’s proposed Charter changes, the two men had differing views.

Alderman Kennedy saw both the good and bad of having limits for the mayor. “A bad or ineffectual mayor would only be able to do damage for a maximum, known number of years(assuming he could survive re-election); a good one would be limited in the time he would have to do good for the city.” Kennedy also noted that the main argument in favor of term limits is that it would limit the chances of a mayor becoming entrenched in office, citing the examples of Chicago and the reigns of Richard J. Daley for 21 years, ending only with his death in 1976, and, later, his son, Richard J. Daley, who was in office for 22 years, leaving of his own choice in 2011.

Mayor Bosman, on the other hand, felt “the best term limit is the vote of the people. Their decision in the voting booth should determine how long a mayor or any elected official stays in office.”

It should be noted that Mayor Bosman is in his second term currently. He was first elected to the position in 2008. I would lay odds he will be running for a third term in 2016. Bosman’s predecessor, John Antaramian served four terms, deciding on his own not to run for a fifth which he would have easily won at the time.

Overall, the change over to a strong mayor-council system will be a positive thing for Sacramento. It will allow for addressing many issues which need to be addressed, issues like those pointed out by the Sacramento News & Review in its article in arguing against the importance of voting on the proposed change.

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