Editor’s note: The latest version of “strong mayor” in Sacramento includes other progressive reforms, but is there enough time to rush it on to November ballot?
A coalition of business, community and labor leaders called on July 23 for changing Sacramento’s charter to give the mayor more power over spending and policy.
But this version of “strong mayor” aimed for the November ballot also includes a number of other progressive reforms aimed toward racial equity—changes likely supported by some who would oppose “strong mayor” by itself.
And in advance of the first debate at the City Council on Tuesday, July 28, a long list of community groups and advocates urged that the “strong mayor” and community equity provisions be put into two separate measures for voters to decide.
Under the original plan, the mayor would appoint the city manager, with confirmation by the City Council, and could also fire the city’s chief administrative officer. The mayor would propose a budget. And the mayor could veto line items in the budget and ordinances, subject to an override by a two-thirds vote of the council.
The mayor, however, would no longer have a vote on the council. In addition, a ninth council district would be added and included by a new independent panel drawing new districts after the 2020 Census.
Besides making the mayor the city’s CEO, the proposal would require that the city invest at least $40 million in inclusive economic development, as promised before voters passed the Measure U half-cent sales tax increase in November 2018, and would establish a participatory budgeting process for residents to give more direct input into which projects and programs are funded by the city.
The proposal would also require the city to evaluate the impact of budget actions and ordinances on promoting racial, ethnic and gender equity and on helping small businesses. And it would give the City Council exclusive authority over the city’s housing authority and land-use decisions, and strengthen and make permanent the city’s transparency ordinance and ethics commission.
While he purposely wasn’t in the July 24 press conference—he says he wanted the community leaders to speak first to send a message—Steinberg said he was a “full partner” in drafting the plan.
And while that plan is much bigger than just strong mayor, it’s not as part of a political strategy to build support, the mayor says. “It is responsive to the issues of our time,” he told me. “It all fits together.”
The coalition leaders say that the changes to the city charter will improve accountability and transparency—arguments that have been made before for “strong mayor.” Amanda Blackwood, president and CEO of the Sac Metro Chamber, said the proposal would help the mayor make city government more efficient. Other speakers said the changes would help the city respond to the growing movement for racial justice.
The leaders also say that the COVID-19 pandemic—and the resulting economic crisis that has hit communities of color the hardest—proves that the mayor needs more freedom to act decisively.
“Of all the lessons we are learning, we have come to clearly understand that we need our city’s leader, the mayor, to be able to respond quickly and effectively set our budget priorities and have the tools to lead us back to economic recovery,” Rachel Rios, executive director of La Familia Counseling Center, said in a statement.
But time is short to get the Mayoral Accountability and Community Equity Act of 2020 on the Nov. 3 ballot. The council would have to pass an official resolution by Aug. 7.
Steinberg said after the council and the public comment on the plan Tuesday, the vote will be on Aug. 4. He said he’s confident the measure will get on the ballot.
“It is responsive to the issues of our time.”
But is it wise to be in such a hurry on such major changes? Is there enough time to give the proposals the proper vetting and public input before placing them before voters?
And even if the measure makes the ballot, how receptive will voters be in the middle of a deadly pandemic?
Cassandra Jennings, president of the Greater Sacramento Urban League, said that coalition leaders are talking to council members, but did not say if they have a majority to put the measure on the ballot.
She also said that the coalition is growing and having conversations. “We are welcoming input now,” she said, and voters will have the chance to speak.
The last time a “strong mayor” measure was on the ballot, in November 2014, 56% of voters rejected Measure L, pushed by then-Mayor Kevin Johnson.
Chet Hewitt, president and CEO of the Sierra Health Foundation, said while the proposal is similar, the time we live in is different. “The change needs to happen. It needs to happen now,” he said.
Despite the broader reforms and the big-name backing Thursday, the measure could still face stern opposition from neighborhood leaders and others who say “strong mayor” would concentrate too much power in one person and weaken the council and influence of neighborhoods. A group called Neighborhoods Against Strong Mayor has already formed, and it includes former Mayor Heather Fargo and incoming City Councilwoman Katie Valenzuela, who has been an outspoken critic of the mayor and council on police reform.
Valenzuela said voters should be insulted that the charter change is being proposed so close to the ballot deadline, saying in a tweet that the timing is “a strong sign of what we could continue to expect under a centralized power structure.” In a series of tweets, she argued that the social equity provisions are window dressing because they aren’t completely binding, and she noted that the measure doesn’t include term limits.
Terry Schanz, chairman of the Democratic Party of Sacramento County, has also registered his opposition, tweeting that the proposed act, “does not hold any current or future mayor accountable and does not ensure community equity. It’s a power grab. It’s a bad idea. It should be defeated. To our City Council, please focus on real problems.”
UPDATE: On Monday, July 27, the community advocates and groups responded by calling for two separate measures. The groups—including the Healthy Sacramento Coalition, the Sacramento chapter of Black Women Organized for Political Action and the Measure U Community Advisory Committee—said while they were pleased to see city leaders consider their proposals, “we are disturbed about the zero sum game of their passage being linked to other provisions in the act; specifically, changing the power, composition and structure of the Mayor and Council governance.”
“Voters should be able to consider if these significant changes to the governance structure have merit separately and independently from measures to increase equity because they are fundamentally different items,” they added.
They also said the community equity provisions must be made binding due to the “city’s track record of sidelining and ignoring community advisors.” They opposed veto power for the mayor and separating the mayor from the council.
Critics also argue that the mayor currently in office should not get the greater powers, only the one elected after any charter change.
But Steinberg says that with this timing, voters would know who would get the additional authority and can decide accordingly. While passing the measure “is going to be tough,” polling shows that it has a good shot, he said.
“I’m not afraid to put this question before voters,” he said.
While Steinberg is leading the city through the coronavirus pandemic as well as the calls for police reform, he has also been frustrated at times by lack of progress on issues such as homelessness. Other big-city mayors in California have more power than does Sacramento’s mayor.
Steinberg told me that while “strong mayor” hasn’t been “a passion play” for him and the city governance system isn’t broken, he has experienced its downsides, especially during the last few months of the pandemic and police reform debate.
Sacramentans, he said, are rightly demanding faster action and he’s being held accountable, but he doesn’t have the tools to make that happen.
The coalition’s announcement came the morning after Black Lives Matter protestors held a die-in outside the home of City Manager Howard Chan to call for his resignation. They say he hasn’t held police officers accountable, though he told The Sacramento Bee that he has disciplined dozens and fired six since becoming interim manager in late 2016. Some activists have also called for Police Chief Daniel Hahn to step aside.
Under the current charter, the city manager hires the police chief, and the mayor and council appoint the city manager.
But Black Lives Matter leader Tanya Faison told CBS13 she opposes “strong mayor.” “The strong mayor is not a good idea. Our mayor already has too much power,” Faison said.
The most recent changes to the city charter were in November 2018 to have the city auditor appointed by the council and in November 2016 to create an independent citizens commission to draw new council districts after the 2020 Census. In March, voters rejected a charter amendment to set aside more money for programs for children and youth.