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Fixing City Hall: Charter committee begins look at overhauling local government

// Published May 21, 2009 in News Review

If you want to make big changes in Sacramento government, now is your chance.

That’s because the 11-member Sacramento Charter Review Committee has begun meeting to consider possible changes to rules governing local elections, the power of elected officials and the city’s budget process.

The Sacramento City Council voted in February to form the committee, after a bid by Mayor Kevin Johnson to put a “strong mayor” proposal on the ballot fell flat. That measure would have made Sacramento’s mayor one of the most powerful executives in any California city, with the power to write the city budget, veto council decisions, and hire and fire all department heads, including the city manager, city treasurer and city attorney.

Several council members balked at the proposal, and citizens groups such as Stop the Power Grab called for a more deliberative approach to tinkering with the city’s constitution, adopted in 1921.

The newly formed group is expected to make its recommendations to the city council at the beginning of next year. The council may embrace whatever recommendations are made, and possibly put a package of reforms to the voters in 2010. But the committee’s report is not binding, and the council may choose to ignore any part of it, or even all of it.

On Monday, May 18, the group held the first of several hearings on the issue of mayoral power, and whether the city should go to a strong executive system of government or stick with the current council-manager form of government.

“I think the big question is whether we want to have a divided executive and legislative function. Or if we want to continue to have a unified form of policy-making, as we do now,” said Bill Edgar, former city manager, retired in 1999. Edgar was made chairman of the committee by his fellow committee members.

Committee member Chester Newland opposed Mayor Johnson’s proposal in the spring.

“It really comes close to a boss-mayor system. It’s not working very well on the state level,” he said. Newland is a professor of public administration at the University of Southern California’s Sacramento campus. He was appointed to the committee by Councilman Ray Tretheway.

Each city council member, including the mayor, was allowed to nominate one member to the committee, and two more “at large” were nominated by a subcommittee of the city council.

The mayor’s appointee is Chris Tapio, a political consultant who worked for Johnson’s mayoral campaign and who served as one of his “kitchen Cabinet” during Johnson’s transition to power.

“I think the city has suffered from a number of problems for a long time, if you look at crime, flood control or K Street development. I wonder how much of that is due to lack of political leadership,” Tapio told SN&R. “It’s hard to hold a group of people accountable for something they don’t do.”

That’s similar to an argument that Johnson made while pushing his proposal, but Tapio faulted Johnson’s plan for not including enough input from the public.

Newland counters that the current system does allow strong political leadership. “The culture of Sacramento has been such that the council has supported strong leadership by the mayor, when the mayor had those qualities.”

The strong-mayor proposal is only one of the issues that the committee will wrestle with. Next on the agenda is a possible overhaul of city election rules.

All of the big California cities that have strong-mayor systems also have some form of term limits for their elected officials. That idea was missing from Johnson’s initiative, but it will get an airing later in the spring.

The committee is also planning to look at a system of instant runoff voting for city elections. IRV allows voters to rank their choice of candidates so that 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. It does away with the need for a runoff election.

After elections rules, the committee is scheduled to consider the formation of a Sacramento city ethics commission.

Along with term limits, the large California cities that have strong-mayor systems also tend to have ethics commissions to keep an eye on their elected officials. The idea was first put forward by City Councilman Kevin McCarty, who called the ethics commission “a staple of good government.”

It’s possible that other ideas can still sneak onto the committee’s agenda. Councilwoman Lauren Hammond has suggested making the job of city council member full time, with additional staff and pay.

Committee member Grantland Johnson has already proposed the idea of “proportional representation” rather than district elections for the city council, as part of the discussion on elections.

Johnson is a former Sacramento City Council member, an alumnus of the county board of supervisors and once California secretary of health and human services in the Gray Davis administration. He was appointed to the committee by Councilwoman Bonnie Pannell.

The vice chairwoman is JoAnn Fuller, associate director of California Common Cause, a government-watchdog organization. Fuller has been active in local government issues like campaign-finance reform, and is one of the at-large members, appointed by a subcommittee of the council.

Cecily Hastings, publisher of the Inside Publications (Inside East Sacramento, Inside Arden, etc.), was appointed by Councilman Steve Cohn.

Robert Murphy, an attorney specializing in local government and land use, was appointed by Councilman Robbie Waters.

John Taylor, another land-use lawyer, was appointed by Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy.

Tina Thomas, another attorney specializing in land use and environmental law, was appointed by Councilman Rob Fong.

William Jay Wisham, a fireman whose father once served as Sacramento assistant city manager, was appointed by Councilwoman Lauren Hammond.

And Alan LoFaso, who works for the California Board of Equalization and serves as an officer in the Stonewall Democratic Club of Greater Sacramento, was appointed by Councilman Kevin McCarty.

“As the initiative debate was beginning earlier in the year, I remember thinking that voters needed more choices,” LoFaso told SN&R. While all the committee members are bringing their own ideas to the process, LoFaso said, “I think one needs to come in with an open mind. The burden of proof is going to be on change.”

All of the committee members that SN&R spoke to said they hoped the public would get involved in the charter review process. “Our job is to stir up some attention, to listen closely to what people have to say and then take the best ideas to the city council,” said Tapio.

All meetings are open to the public, and additional weekend workshops to encourage more public participation are being scheduled as well.

You can see the meeting schedule, read minutes or view archived video of past meetings on the city’s Web site, at www.cityofsacramento.org/charter.