A Foolish Consistency

For four years, the Sacramento City Council has thwarted the notion of a strong-mayor system that would give this and future mayors the authority they need to govern more effectively. Here’s why the council’s argument is so weak.
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Anyone see Sheriff Andy? Sacramento’s current form of city government is as antiquated as its beautiful old building. Courtesy of California State Library.

Back in 1841, not long before Sacramento established its first city charter, a young Bostonian by the name of Ralph Waldo Emerson published an essay entitled “Self-Reliance,” and in it he penned these words: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

When it comes to the strong-mayor debate recently roiling the occupants at Sacramento City Hall, never have truer words been written.

Nearly four years ago, back when Heather Fargo was still mayor, we published a piece in this space calling for a strong-mayor form of government seven months before the mayoral election in November 2008. It was even a week or two before then-candidate Kevin Johnson publicly announced his interest in pursuing the concept. We had no idea who would win, of course, but we did know one thing—this city had long outgrown its archaic weak-mayor system.

The City Council, however, did not seem to know that, criticizing the proposal in 2008 and rejecting it in 2009. Just wait until 2010 or 2012, they suggested. Give us more time, they asked.

Apparently three or four years wasn’t enough time for them. On Jan. 17, the council outright rejected the mayor’s proposal to put the newly revised strong-mayor plan on the June ballot, and gave only lukewarm support to considering it for the November ballot.

For those not familiar with our current system, in a nutshell, it’s known as a weak-mayor system, where the mayor has simply one of nine votes on the City Council, but no real executive powers beyond that, other than running council meetings and representing the city at various civic functions. The council hires a city manager who sets the budget and does the majority of the hiring and firing in City Hall. As a result, the mayor is largely a glorified city council member, although perhaps with a bit more influence than his council colleagues by virtue of the title alone.

It’s a system typical of smaller towns, while most big cities have the so-called strong-mayor system.

In fact, as pointed out in our 2008 piece, Sacramento is one of the only major cities in California that hasn’t adopted a strong-mayor system. For years, and in some cases decades, the cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland and Fresno have operated under such a system, and not one has reversed it.

That leaves Sacramento in the weak-mayor category along with smaller municipalities like Stockton, Modesto and Chico, none of which are even a fraction of our size or share the complexity of anchoring a region with 2.2 million residents. A weak-mayor system may very well be right for those cities.

It’s not, however, right for us.

One of the most recent civic converts to the strong-mayor system was Oakland in 2004. Then-Mayor Jerry Brown successfully pushed for the new form of government, insisting that such a system “counterbalances the parochialism of council districts.” Translation: The mayor needs to focus on the interests of the entire city and not get bogged down, for example, by the minutiae of provincial disputes and distractions.

To wit: Not one of the mayors in the above-mentioned strong-mayor cities regularly attends city council meetings, and with good reason. In the Jan. 17, 2012 meeting, during which the majority of the Sacramento City Council gave the strong-mayor proposal a reception that ranged from lukewarm to outright dismissive, one agenda item was devoted to discussing a lease extension for the company that washes city vehicles, while another involved approving expenditures on city equipment, including “up to two wood chippers.”

Wood chippers.

This is not what our mayor, or any mayor of a major metropolitan city, should be spending his or her extremely limited and valuable time on. There are significantly larger fish to fry in this city—public safety, education, economic development and, yes, getting an arena built. Our mayor should have the power to make key decisions without spending months or years trying to build political consensus for every decision.

And those who suggest the strong-mayor system is some sort of nefarious “power grab” need to pay closer attention. Contrary to popular belief, a strong mayor can’t do whatever he or she wants. In other cities, protections are put in place where the city council can override the mayor if he or she acts irresponsibly. That would happen here, too.

Amazingly, the one guy who does have real decision-making power similar to a corporate CEO—our city manager—is not elected by the people. We have nothing against our current city manager, but in what world does that make sense?

What’s the point of even having a mayor? Think about it. Don’t we all assume that when we elect a mayor, we’re electing someone to run our city? Remarkably, that’s not the case.

It’s no secret that several of the council members have been entrenched for multiple terms and don’t want to release even an ounce of additional authority to a guy they perceive as an aggressive, blunt, celebrity mayor (traits that not all of us see as a bad thing). But to allow one individual who temporarily holds this office to affect their decision on this critical civic issue is the wrong way to govern.

Put simply, the choice to move to a strong-mayor form of government should have nothing to do with Kevin Johnson at all. Whether you’re a city council person or a citizen, basing that decision on your personal opinion of a single man is precisely the same approach as making a decision whether or not to build a new arena based purely on your opinion of a single family, the Maloofs. It’s a deeply flawed and shortsighted premise that only the most insular of us would support. In both cases, we need to be bigger than this. We need to put the city first.

Mayors come and go. But while they are in office, we need to give them the opportunity to do exactly what we elected them to do—lead. And not in the symbolic way that a weak-mayor system allows for, but by giving them the authority to take chances in the hopes of effecting real and positive change. As a big city that’s facing big problems in a depressed economy, now is not the time for ceremonial leadership.

And if we don’t change the system, we’re facing worse consequences than many of us might realize. A city is like a business—it needs talented people to thrive. But if you can’t attract the best and brightest, how can a city move forward?

Take note of the fact that, at least as of late January, not one serious candidate has emerged to run against Mayor Johnson. Why is that? Why aren’t there any other local leaders opting to run? One possible reason, of course, is that people think Mayor KJ is doing a great job. The other is that they know how politically hamstrung a Sacramento mayor is. And why would someone with bold ideas and experience as an effective decision-maker want to be mayor here when he or she can’t act boldly or decisively?

Instead, don’t we want to attract people who actually know how to make things happen? People with vision? People who think big? Or do we simply want tentative deliberators?

This city already spends far too much time deliberating and not nearly enough time getting things done. If you look at the economic indicators, it becomes painfully clear that this city has no time to waste. This isn’t Mayberry, folks. We’re the capital of California, and we need to start acting like it.

Sure, there are legitimate disagreements to be worked out when it comes to altering the city charter. But any conversation that doesn’t include a provision increasing the authority—and responsibility—of the only person in Sacramento that the people actually elected to lead it, is aggressively and, yes, foolishly holding this city back from reaching its full potential. Now is not the time for “little statesmen.”

In January, council members rebuffed the mayor’s efforts to put his strong-mayor proposal on the June ballot. Let’s hope that when they reconvene to discuss the matter again in February, that they can look beyond any personal differences that they may have with one man, see the bigger picture, and give our city a shot at the better future that it deserves.