Can cities be run better?

Jeff vonKaenel

While Mayor Kevin Johnson’s handling of the “strong mayor” campaign turned into a case study on how to mess up on a political issue, I certainly understand why he remains frustrated with Sacramento’s current governance system. In fact, I do not know anyone who believes that the way decisions are made or policies are now implemented is effective.

Whether you are liberal or conservative, a business owner or an employee, work in the private or public sector, there is almost universal agreement that the current method of allocating government resources in virtually every city in America is a mess. The existing decision-making process in government is wasteful, cumbersome, frustrating and inefficient. Resources are allocated not based on where they should go, but rather on what choices can survive the political process.

This is not the fault of our public-sector employees. They did not set up the civil-service system or the current budgeting process. They did not create an outdated system of job classifications that have become inflexible in a changing world. The problem is not who is in the job, but rather, the system.

I understand that Mayor Johnson’s idea was to model Sacramento’s governance structure on that of other large cities. But why should we care? It is true that in those cities, the mayor has more prestige and power, but Johnson never made the case that those cities were better run. So it is time to rethink the issue. I suggest we look for cities that are better run and consider modeling our structure on theirs.

One such city would be Rancho Cordova. Incorporated in 2003, the founders of Rancho Cordova were not burdened with decades of tradition. Instead, they brought in Ted Gaebler, a well-known consultant and author of the best selling Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit Is Transforming the Public Sector, to help create their city structure. In Rancho Cordova, the mayor and city council focus on policy, while the staff is tasked with implementing that policy. Budgets have room for changes. The staff has more flexible job classifications and more latitude in decision making. This empowered staff, while appearing to take power away from the council, instead gives them the space and time to direct policy. Consequently, Rancho Cordova gets the best of both worlds: better policy as well as a smoother implementation of that policy.

Frankly, Sacramento could thrive with a Rancho Cordova style of city government. Mayor Johnson’s ability to focus new energy and resources on big issues such as homelessness, the arts and the environment could be well-served by an engaged city staff with the power and latitude to effectively implement his vision. Perhaps it is time for the mayor to go on another study mission to look at what other cities are doing. This time, he can ride his bike.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.