Former NBA star Kevin Johnson first proposed as candidate revising the city’s charter to replace Sacramento’s council form of government with one where the mayor is granted the authority to hire and fire city employees, issue executive orders and hold veto power over legislation.
The ‘strong-mayor’ initiative, if mere political strategy, effectively diffused the issue of candidate Johnson’s lack of experience – since neither he nor his two-term opponent were experienced with ‘strong mayor’ governments – while implying by default that no mayor before him, including his opponent, had been any of the litany list of words voters associated with ‘strong.’
As true governance reform, however, Johnson’s dream initiative appears to have withered under the scrutiny of the city’s real political veterans.
In yesterday’s withdrawal of the proposal, Johnson acknowledged that the push for the previous strong-mayor initiative “could have been done better” and that he takes “full ownership from the standpoint that it wasn’t a situation where we got as much input as we would have ideally wanted,” according to the Bee.
It was, as they say in sports, a rookie mistake. Johnson forgot what he once knew on the court, there is no ‘I’ in ‘Team.’
Opponents of the measure questioned why a mayor who had never attended a single city council meeting would ask to rewrite a city charter he’d never read in order to replace a form of government he never observed with one written by his own attorney to empower an office he had yet to hold with more authority than any mayor before him says is needed.
Two of those former mayors, Anne Rudin and Heather Fargo – the fellow Democrat Johnson ousted – oppose the plan as a “power grab,” telling CPR the city’s current government structure is an appropriate balance of power that may not make for exciting headlines, but is best suited to Sacramento because it builds coalitions among the city’s diverse communities and provides for honest and transparent governance.
“Power is not the same as leadership,” said Sacramento’s former 80’s mayoral powerhouse and enduring city icon, Anne Rudin. “I was able to work with the council to accomplish everything I wanted.”
Rudin told CPR there was never a circumstance during her tenure as mayor “where I would have wanted or needed the power Kevin is asking for.”
As the city’s last “part-time” citizen mayor (the city charter was last changed in 2002 to make the mayor a full-time position), Rudin is largely credited with the revitalization of the city’s downtown core, eliminating the city’s building height restriction, the construction and later expansion of the city’s light rail transit system, the convention center, bringing the Hyatt Grand to downtown and passing some of the nation’s first anti-discrimination and domestic partnership laws that consistently evoke standing ovations for Rudin at LGBT community events two decades after leaving office.
While many lesser politicians actively seek being memorialized on every project they played any part in creating, nothing in Sacramento bears Rudin’s name – at the former mayor’s request.
Modesty may just be the key to the extra power Johnson seeks.
Once dubbed, “Mother Mayor” by the city’s gay-oriented OUTWORD Magazine, Rudin told CPR she never needed the power Johnson now seeks, even when tackling tough issues like protection in restaurant employment for people living with AIDS, and wonders why anyone would want to be a “stronger mayor.”
Rudin suggested to CPR Sacramento’s current style of governance requires the kind of coalition building among the city’s diverse communities that lent itself to Sacramento being named “America’s Most Integrated City” by the Civil Rights Project of Harvard University in 2002.
“I’m more concerned about why he wanted that even before holding office,” said Rudin. “That’s the question I would like to have answered, and that’s the first strike against him, no experience in governing.”
“When Kevin won the election, I told my friends that we have seen the end of good government in Sacramento as we knew it. If he were to get the right to hire and fire top level employees, including the city’s attorney and manager, I think that’s a danger to transparency.”
“Right now it is the city council that has the final say in hiring a city clerk, treasurer, attorney and manager. That is how it should be. Kevin wants to be able to hire and fire, to control, these positions that deal with issues that affect the legal and financial well being of the city. That presents a danger,” Rudin told CPR.
Rudin, whose endorsement remains sought after by every progressive candidate for city government since leaving office – she’s had endorsement requests from three candidates in one district already – and coveted by the campaign that gets it, told CPR she is concerned enough about Johnson’s proposal that “my endorsements will be strongly tied to how [current council members] handle this issue.”
“First of all I don’t think anyone has made the case to change the current form of government,” Fargo told the California Progress Report. “They haven’t given one good reason for wanting the change, other than firing staff and hiring their own people.”
“People in California trust their local government more than any other form of government because they can reach us,” said Fargo. “If people are angry, we know it at the next council meeting, and I’ve sat through some contentious ones. It’s the process that makes for coalition and community building, and while he says his plan will make the mayor more accountable, it would actually make him less accessible because he would be removed from the council meetings.”
Fargo noted that while Johnson has often used San Francisco as an example of what he proposes, “San Francisco is totally different to us because it is unique in that it’s both a city and a county,” Fargo told CPR Tuesday. “People asked me why I wasn’t marrying couples like Gavin was, and I think many people are getting the idea that this plan would empower the mayor to do extraordinary things, but the reality is San Francisco’s mayor can do things because he is in the unique position of heading a city and a county. That form of government wouldn’t work for us because we are a city, not county government.”
Like Rudin, Fargo’s tenure saw steady, if unsung, improvement to services, including the opening of two of three new libraries built last year. “I’d like to see Kevin match that,” mused Fargo. Also like Rudin, Fargo declined an offer before leaving office to have the South Natomas Community Center named for her. “It belongs to the South Natomas community. Since the community built it and paid for it and because it wasn’t a single person’s effort, it didn’t seem appropriate to me that it be named after just one person.”
Johnson had proposed a scaled-back version of his original strong-mayor initiative after it became clear he didn’t have the support to get the original proposal on the June ballot, but a decision by the 3rd District Court of Appeal last week against Johnson’s request to delay a ruling on the strong mayor initiative ensured Johnson would not get the measure on the ballot in June.