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Tab Berg

Measure L Makes Sacramento More Accountable to Voters

The core issue of Sacramento Measure L, popularly referred to as “Strong Mayor,”  is straight forward: it makes the chief executive of the city directly accountable to votersthe people who pay the bills and live with results.

Measure L changes the City of Sacramento from Manager-Council system to a Mayor-Council system.  Despite claims from alarmists, it does not grab power from the City Council, who retain all their authority as a deliberative body.  Measure L does, however, shift policy making authority from an unelected city manager and returns it to the elected Mayor.

Measure L also creates an independent budget analyst, requires the city to increase transparency, establish an ethics committee, and shifts redistricting powers from politicians to a citizen redistricting commission.

That’s why Measure L has been endorsed by the Sacramento County Republican Party & the Chamber of Commerce, Sheriff Scott Jones & former Police Chief Rick Braziel – in fact a broad coalition of conservative voices have endorsed Measure L.

Most of the opposition comes from groups and individuals who don’t really object to the proposal on its merits in fact, many of them supported “Strong Mayor” proposals in the past Their opposition stems primarily from personal animus for the popular current Mayor, Kevin Johnson.

Recently, a report consisting mostly of supposition and opinion masquerading as a study concluded that Measure L wasn’t “justified”.  I have a lot of respect for citizen groups, which can provide valuable insight and give voice to opposition on critical issues; but it’s apparent that their “analysis” of Measure L is more about personality than policy.  The group admits it supported putting “strong mayor” on the ballot in the past, and did not articulate any reservations at the time.  Now they say they were really only advocating that it go on the ballot and had never even considered whether or not it was a good policy.  That’s pretty thin.

Likewise, former Mayor Heather Fargo, one of the primary voices against Measure L, supported and voted for a strong mayor system in the past – which makes her sudden reversal puzzling.

I think the concepts of accountability & self-determination are principles that are more important than personal animosity.

Behind the obvious “we just don’t like this Mayor” motive, the arguments against Measure L consist mostly of a hodgepodge of straw man misrepresentations and logical fallacies wrapped in a slogan.

The most frequently heard claim is the measure gives too much authority to the Mayor, and supposition about what could happen if Sacramento elects a bad Mayor.  Sounds pretty bad.  But what if the City Council hired Robert Rizzo as city Manager?  Doomsday scenarios work both ways.

Regardless of which governance structure is in place, there is a risk of abuse from unscrupulous individuals.  We must always be diligent against the Rob Fords and Robert Rizzos of the world; and voters always face the risk that a candidate will say one thing, then vote the opposite way after getting into office.  The fact is, giving voters the authority to hire or fire the Chief Executive (rather than vesting power in an unelected and unaccountable appointed official) provides the best protection against coerced abuse.

The other argument from those opposing Measure L is “everything is fine, we don’t need to change.”  But the facts don’t support the claim.  Sacramento regularly ranks near the bottom in studies of places to start or run a business, transparency, and effective management.

Virtually every other large city – including San Diego and Fresno – have changed to Mayor-Council system. The results have been mostly positive.

San Diego adopted the Mayor-Council system in 2004, allowing Mayor Jerry Sanders to pull the city out of its long-running “Enron by the Sea” fiscal crisis.  San Diego included the same 5-year voter reaffirmation requirement as Measure L – and San Diego voters confirmed the “strong mayor” system with over 60% of the vote.

Sanders analysis was stark: “Under the old system an unelected bureaucrat was responsible for city administration. And he kept his job by sweeping problems under the rug.  That’s how we got an underfunded pension system and hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance.”

San Jose adopted a hybrid system, and the expanded accountability and authority helped Mayor Chuck Reed push through historic pension reforms.  That would not have happened under the old system.

Measure L is not a panacea that will cover Sacramento in rainbows and leprachaun gold.  But it does increase accountability, demand more transparency, and ensure greater efficiency Perhaps more importantly, it makes the city’s top executive directly accountable to voters – and reaffirms the core principle of self-determination.

Disclosure: Although the official committee is not a client, I am working to support passage of Measure L.

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