What Would Joe Serna Say?

Sacramento might be ready for a strong mayor

Back Commentary Dec 1, 2013 By Winnie Comstock-Carlson

We’re at it again. For the fourth time in five years, the political conversation in Sacramento is focused on whether to change the city’s governing framework from the current council/city-manager structure to a so-called strong mayor system that boosts the mayor’s authority.

The debate boils down to whether you believe that a mayor who acts more like a CEO would better serve today’s Sacramento, a city substantially larger, more complex and more diverse than it was in 1921 when the current structure was enacted.

In each of three previous attempts, strong mayor proposals failed to get past the city council. Early last month, the latest proposal, called the 2014 Checks and Balances Act, passed in a 5-4 vote of the council. That puts the proposal on next year’s November ballot, where voters will have the final say.

The proposal has been amended — and I think improved — since it was first mooted in 2008. Yes, it would increase the mayor’s power substantially, mostly by allowing the mayor to nominate (and terminate) the city manager and to propose the annual city budget.

But, it limits the mayor to two 4-year terms, creates an independent citizens’ commission to draw new districts for council members and adds an advisory panel to represent the interests of city neighborhoods. After a 5-year trial, voters would have a chance to vote again on whether to make the mayoral change permanent.

For those who don’t remember, this whole discussion isn’t new. It began more than 20 years ago when in the broader context of a city/county merger with a strong mayor plus an 11-member council of supervisors. In the end, the merger was voted down in the general election of 1990.

Two years later, former Mayor Joe Serna was elected. He informally canvassed movers and shakers about a city charter revision that would enhance the mayor’s strength. Serna dropped the issue when he found there was little support for change. Yet he went on to become one of Sacramento’s stronger mayors, based on using his office as a bully pulpit to exert influence far beyond the formal limitations of his office.

Fast-forward to 2013 and Kevin Johnson.

Maybe the proposed sports and entertainment complex will prove to be Johnson’s “Joe Serna” moment — the realization of how to lead a community (sometimes kicking and screaming) toward a vision of the future.

One could argue that, if the arena project succeeds, it will prove that you don’t need a strong mayor structure to lead effectively. One could also argue that much more could be accomplished and quicker with a stronger leadership structure in place.

I continue to believe, as I did when I first wrote about this subject in 2008, that a change in Sacramento’s municipal structure is no panacea. But in the 20 years since we first considered the notion of a stronger mayor, I have also seen (and been frustrated by) many missed opportunities- — opportunities to develop downtown Sacramento into a vibrant urban center, to develop the city and region as a cohesive economic power.

I think Sacramento may be ready for a stronger mayor — one who can be clearly held accountable for his or her performance in office. I’m glad voters will finally have a chance to decide. Let’s have a healthy public discussion, not one that focuses on Kevin Johnson but one that looks at the proper role for a mayor in today’s Sacramento — or better yet, in tomorrow’s Sacramento. 


Winnie Comstock-Carlson is the publisher of Comstock’s magazine. Reach her at winnie@comstocksmag.com 

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