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Five ways to fix City Hall

Cosmo Garvin // Published February 26, 2009 in Sacramento News & Review
This could not have been what Kevin Johnson had in mind. The whole strong-mayor thing was his idea, and now it’s been hijacked by people with completely different agendas. His peers on the city council, labor unions, gadflies and good government types all have their own ideas about how the city government should be reformed.

“Having a king in Sacramento is not what people had in mind,” says Sacramento City Councilman Kevin McCarty, one of the main hijackers.

A quick recap: In January, without consulting members of the city council, relying on his own private advisers and fundraisers, Johnson launched a ballot initiative to make Sacramento’s mayor one of the most powerful executives in any California city.

The appeal of a strong-mayor system lies in the perception that no one is in charge and that no one is accountable for the failures of city government.

Look at the downtown rail yards, says Jock O’Connell, an international trade expert who has made a hobby of studying and writing about mayoral power in Sacramento. Or look at the floundering of K Street or the lack of progress in building a new Kings arena. “All of the major projects these guys have been pushing have come to naught,” he explains. On the other hand, Sacramento hasn’t seen the kind of scandal and political patronage that prompted the progressive movement to toss out strong-mayor systems in cities around the United States during the 1910s and 1920s. Sacramento’s own city charter dates back to 1921. Since then, Sacramento hasn’t produced a Boss Tweed or even a Willie Brown. Missing water meters or former Mayor Heather Fargo’s travel to an environmental conference—hardly the stuff of Tammany Hall.

Sure, says O’Connell, it’s been pretty quiet. And that’s the problem.

“What was fundamentally wrong with Mayor [Richard M.] Daley or Mayor [James Michael] Curley?” O’Connell asks, referring to the famously powerful (and controversial) mayors of Chicago and Boston.

“They got a lot of things done. If the objective is to avoid scandal, we’ve got a good record. But if the objective is to drive the city forward and to make something of it, we’ve got a bad record.”

But in his bid for big-city power, Johnson miscalculated. Lacking the signatures needed to place the measure on the ballot and lacking support on the Sacramento City Council, he had to retreat.

Indeed, Johnson pulled the initiative back, at least temporarily, just before a damning report by City Attorney Eileen Teichert that showed just how far-reaching the strong-mayor bid is when compared to other California big cities (see “Boss Johnson,” SN&R Feature sidebar, page 21). Just as importantly, the proposal skipped the usual process by which cities tinker with their charters. “Usually, there’s some sort of objective examination, like a published report from a commission, something like that,” says Al Sokolow, a retired professor of local government and public policy specialist at UC Davis.

Look at transportation planning, or the waterfront, or the budget, or the development of K Street, or any other area of public policy, and you find that public input, and lots of it, is the rule in Sacramento.

“We hold these big meetings and charrettes, we bring hundreds of people into a room and ask their opinion,” says McCarty. “When it comes to changing our constitution, we’re not going to do at least that?” McCarty and others say it’s time to have a real debate about charter reform before going forward. “This is a discussion worth having. I think it’s time we talked about our governance.”

And the discussion need not be limited to just the possibility of a strong-mayor system. City Councilwoman Lauren Hammond says the commission ought to do some serious city charter cleanup. “I think we ought to look at the whole charter, not just the mayor and council.” Hammond is talking about a thorough overhaul of the city charter. A few ideas she threw out: We ought to consider establishing a full-time city council; we should explore new elections rules like “instant runoff voting"; and we should require citizens to use “green waste” containers for their lawn clippings.

And so, last week, on February 17, the council agreed to form an 11-member commission that would take a year to consider possible charter reforms and make recommendations to the city council. Each council member, including the mayor, would get to appoint one member of the commission, with two “at large” members selected by a special subcommittee of the council. To his credit, Johnson supported the formation of the committee.

The commission will specifically look at the power of the mayor and council. But once assembled, there’s really nothing that’s off-limits for them to study—from a full-time city council to free doughnuts on Friday. The commission can come back with any set of recommendations it likes. It would then be up to the city council to put the package on the ballot—most likely in June of 2010.

A lot can happen between now and then. For example, the Johnson initiative may wind up going head to head with a competing initiative recommended by the commission and placed on the ballot by the city council. Or perhaps Johnson will abandon his measure in favor of one vetted by the public and the council.

“I don’t think his would pass,” says Hammond. “I think at this point he should just withdraw it.”

Either way, there is now a forum for talking about a whole suite of options for improving the city’s charter. Below, SN&R presents five other areas of reform that ought to be discussed along with the strong-mayor proposal. May the best plan win.

1. Term limits 
Five large cities in California have strong-mayor systems of government: Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Fresno and Oakland. Every one of them has an important check on mayoral power that is absent from the Johnson proposal: term limits. Denver has a strong-mayor system and term limits. New York City has a term-limited mayor. Phoenix, where Kevin Johnson lived for years while he played for the Suns, and a place that Johnson has often said should be a model for Sacramento, has term limits for its mayor.

Not only is it a good balance to executive power, says Bob Stern, with the good government watchdog group Center for Governmental Studies, it’s good for the council, too.

“You get new blood, and with open seats you definitely get more competitive elections,” says Stern, who adds that a law limiting council members to 12 years “sounds reasonable to me.” That would mean an end to the tenures of council members Steve Cohn and Robbie Waters, who have each served for 15 years.

But term limits are controversial, especially for legislative bodies.

“I think the reformers are misguided on this one,” says Bruce Pomer, an elected board member of the Los Rios Community College District Board of Trustees. He says term limits haven’t worked for the state Legislature, and it would just create a brain drain on the city council. He argues that the real problem is the current crop of elected officials. “Sacramento has been asleep for the last decade. Nobody ever runs for office. They all run unopposed.”

Of course, folks like Bob Stern would argue that the reason they run unopposed is because nobody can raise the funds to compete with an entrenched incumbent. So the argument goes round.

2. Ethics commission 
Along with term limits, the big cities that have strong-mayor systems tend to have another institution in place called an ethics commission. “I think it’s a staple of good government to have a watchdog,” says Councilman Kevin McCarty.

In Oakland, Los Angeles and San Francisco, such commissions have been in place for more than a decade to keep track of campaign-finance rules and conflict of interest, to keep tabs on lobbyists and to independently investigate ethics complaints.

Currently, Sacramento’s city clerk does many of those jobs. “But it’s not her job to investigate if there’s a problem,” says McCarty.

Stern says governments rarely set up ethics commissions as a preventative measure—though in Oakland one was created as part an overhaul of campaign-finance rules. “There’s not usually an ethics commission unless there’s some sort of scandal,” he explains.

But McCarty says there’s no need to wait for a scandal. In his first few months in office, Kevin Johnson has pushed the old boundaries at City Hall, adding volunteers and informal advisers from various business and other special-interest groups to his staff—raising concerns about conflict of interest. “There have been all sorts of concerns recently,” McCarty notes. These are just the kinds of questions an ethics commission would look into. “An ethics commission would serve as a deterrent and as an investigating body, and make sure everything is on the up and up,” he adds.

3. Full-time city council 
This is an idea supported by Councilwoman Lauren Hammond and by the Sacramento Area Fire Fighters Local 522.

“I have a very lively district,” says Hammond. “It is very difficult to keep on top of with two staff members.”

Many of her fellow city council members have day jobs. But Hammond quit her job as a staffer in the California state Senate about five years ago to focus on her 5th District council seat. The workload has only gotten heavier since. “Just answering your e-mails is a full-time job,” Hammond explains, adding that “there’s been an explosion of interest” in local government in the last few months.

It wasn’t that long ago that even the job of mayor was considered a part-time position. It was Heather Fargo who shepherded through a ballot measure giving the mayor full-time status, in 2002. Today, the mayor makes $111,000 a year; city council members make $58,477. To some of us, that sounds like a pretty good annual salary. But it’s far below what many candidates would make in law practices, as heads of businesses or in the government bureaucracy. By comparison, county supervisors make more than $98,000 a year.

There was consideration in 2002 for making the city council a full-time job, along with the mayor. But that part was ultimately left off of the ballot question, the story goes, because polling showed that people wouldn’t vote for the whole package.

San Jose has a full-time city council, as does San Diego. In Los Angeles, council members even keep district offices outside of City Hall.

While Sacramento’s council districts are nowhere close to the size and population of those in L.A., “There’s a good reason for wanting them to be more than part time,” says O’Connell, “if only to have them get out and spend more time with their constituents.”

But O’Connell says the real problem is that the council is bogged down with petty issues that would be better dealt with by city bureaucrats. “The mindless drivel they have to deal with. They get to engage every night in a five-hour debate about where to put a stoplight. I wouldn’t last an hour.” The job, says O’Connell, probably scares off some of the best candidates. “There’s no lack of high-caliber people in this community; we’ve just turned them off to public service.”

4. Elections reform 
The last time Sacramento created a commission to reform government, the results were a mixed bag. Back in the 2003, a commission came back with a set of new campaign-finance rules limiting the amounts that donors and political committees can give—and also a new system to allow for the public financing of campaigns for candidates that agree to spending limits and other ethics rules.

Five years later, campaigns have only gotten more expensive. And the public financing system is loaded down with so many restrictions and caveats (many of which don’t apply to privately funded campaigns) that no challenger has yet figured out how to make a go of it.

Bob Stern thinks the public financing system would work better if the city had some sort of term-limits law on the books. And Rob Kerth, former city councilman, current member of the SMUD board of directors and president of the Midtown Business Association, thinks the system could be reinvigorated and help create more competitive elections.

“We really ought to have a meaningful public financing system,” Kerth explains. “Let’s figure out some litmus test that proves you’re a viable candidate, and then write a check. At least give them enough for a couple of [campaign] mail pieces.”

There are plenty of campaign reforms to experiment with. In the cities of Pasadena and Santa Monica, citizens changed their government charters to forbid council members from receiving any “personal benefit,” including jobs, gifts or campaign contributions, from anyone seeking a “public benefit” from the city council. For example, vendors receive a public benefit when their goods or services are purchased by the city. Developers receive a public benefit when the city council agrees to rezone the developer’s land.

Given that developers (along with building-trades unions) are among the largest contributors to political campaigns in Sacramento, this reform could change local politics dramatically.

The commission might also want to take a look at other elections rules. City Councilman Steve Cohn, for example, suggested the commission look at whether the city should shorten the period between its primary and runoff elections. “If there’s anything that drives up the costs of elections, it’s that,” says Cohn.

Hammond goes further. “Why not look at instant runoff voting?” she asks. Instant runoff voting allows voters to rank their choice of candidates. If no candidate is the first choice of a majority of voters (50 percent plus one vote), then election officials start counting second-choice votes. That will usually push someone over the 50 percent mark, but third and fourth rounds are possible. What’s important is that it does away with the need for a runoff election, and it gets rid of the “spoiler effect,” where some voters feel like their vote doesn’t count if they support a minor candidate. A similar system, called “choice voting,” is being considered in Davis.

“I really like this idea,” says Kerth. “And I think we’re smart enough to do it.”

5. Unification 
Term limits, ethics commissions, tweaking elections rules, that’s all just fussing around the edges of the problem, says Al Sokolow. He thinks Sacramento ought to at least consider a proposal from 1990 which would fundamentally change the way the Sacramento metro area is governed.

In 1990, voters had a chance to vote on Measure S, which would have unified the city of Sacramento and the county of Sacramento into one local government.

It’s common to hear local elected leaders talk a lot about regionalism, about the need for local governments to work together to solve common problems like transportation, air pollution and making do with scarce tax revenue. Measure S would have taken regionalism several steps further—forcing cooperation through combination.

There are economies of scale to be considered; think about the duplication in services between the city’s police department and the county sheriff’s department, between the separate housing, transportation and code-enforcement departments. Just as importantly, Sokolow notes, city and county governments are always competing for scarce resources, sales and property taxes, and sometimes making bad development decisions in order to beat their neighbors in the sales-tax game. Unification does away with much of that. “I think that’s an option that ought to be looked at more than just tinkering with the powers of the mayor.”

Measure S was strongly opposed by conservative taxpayers groups and voters in the suburbs. And it went down to defeat, 58 percent to 42 percent. But the arguments in favor of Measure S have probably grown stronger, says Sokolow.

“I think the most compelling argument is the dire financial straits that local governments find themselves in today,” Sokolow says.

O’Connell agrees with Sokolow that now would be a good time to revisit the idea of unification. Local government is entering an unknown and somewhat scary era. “The growth we saw in 2003, ’04, ’05, that kind of growth is not coming back,” he says, adding that cities need to settle in for a long period of austerity.

But O’Connell says that even if unification makes good policy sense, it would probably flop politically. “I’m just not sure how far you’d get with that. My sense is that the people who don’t live in the city of Sacramento tend to resent the city of Sacramento.”

Bob Waste, a public policy professor at Sacramento State, agrees. “As a political scientist, I love the idea. Financially it makes a lot of sense,” he explains. “As a political consultant, I hate the idea. We had that discussion, and it lost.”