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Supporters, Opponents Debate Strong Mayor Proposal

Marnette Federis / Capital Public Radio

(Left to right): Former mayor Heather Fargo and Councilman Steve Hansen spoke against Measure L. Jeff Von Kaenel (middle) moderated the debate. Michelle Rhee and Joshua Wood spoke in favor of the proposal.

Marnette Federis / Capital Public Radio

The gubernatorial match-up between Jerry Brown and Neel Kashkari wasn’t the only debate happening in town Thursday night.

Opponents and supporters of Measure L gathered at the Sacramento Food Bank for a panel discussion organized by the Oak Park Neighborhood Association.

But dialogue around the proposal, which would change Sacramento’s city government from a council-mayor system into a strong-mayor structure, quickly turned into a lively debate.

Councilman Steve Hansen and former Mayor Heather Fargo spoke against Measure L and Michelle Rhee, who is married to Mayor Kevin Johnson, and Joshua Wood, Executive Director of Region Builders Inc, argued in favor of the proposal.

Excerpts: Measure L Debate Sept. 4

Full Audio: Measure L Debate Sept. 4

Less than a minute into a presentation of the City Clerk’s analysis of Measure L from Daniel Conway, Mayor Kevin Johnson’s Chief of Staff, Hansen interrupted and called "foul.”

“We want an impartial presentation; you are not an impartial person," said Hansen.

Conway said it did not matter who did the presentation.

“I think honestly anyone can come up here and walk through this Power Point … so if someone else wants to come up and do it,” said Conway. 

He deferred to the night’s moderator Jeff Von Kaenel, president and CEO of the Sacramento News and Review, and Michael Boyd, president of the Oak Park Neighborhood Association, to read the clerk’s analysis.

Opponents of the proposal argued the change would put too much power in the hands of one person and won’t allow for collaboration in the city’s decision-making process.

“I don’t see this as an innovation,” Hansen said. “I see this as politics in a way that undermines not only professionalism, but [also] efficiency.”

Supporters disagreed saying Measure L would make the city more productive. 

Rhee used the Sacramento Kings arena deal as an example. She said that under the current system the mayor had to implement “work-around solutions” in order to make the deal happen.

“Did it happen? Yes,” she said. “Could it have been done faster? Absolutely. That’s just a fraction of what can happen when a mayor can give direction to city employees.

Supporters attempted to put a dent into the opposition’s “if it ain’t broke then why fix it” position.

Wood used an analogy of the iPhone versus a flip phone. He said there was nothing wrong with a flip phone, but the iPhone signaled progress.

“Your flip phone works, it worked, it doesn’t mean there was something wrong with your flip phone,” Wood said. “It’s not about whether or not there was something wrong, it’s about progress, moving forward and doing what’s better.”

Opponents balked at the analogy and said there were too many unknowns under a strong-mayor framework.

“I think the [current] system is working, “ said Hansen. “Why are we breaking the team up to make it about one person instead of everyone? Should we throw out the system that we have for an experiment?  [The current system] is a fairer system and it reflects our values." 

Each side was quick to dispute the other’s claims.

Hansen disagreed with Rhee’s assessment of how the arena deal developed.

“I bet you that the we would not have gotten the arena in the system that they’re talking about because it really does reduce the ability for decisions to get made, it allows a small minority to object and hold things up," he said.

Rhee said opponents were using scare tactics and disputed claims that switching to a strong mayor system would result in more corruption.

“I just want to note that if you look at other cities that have a weak mayor form of government like Bell, Calif., which had an enormous public corruption scandal, that was in a weak mayor structure as well,” she said. “So, I don’t think you can say that because a city has a weak mayor or a strong mayor structure that it is more susceptible to corruption, that’s just not the case.”

She later added, “Every team needs a captain, somebody has to be calling the plays, you need leadership in order to be an effective government.”

Residents also got a chance to question the panelists.

One asked, “If not a power grab, why does Yes On L want to create a veto requirement that is more than what is required in Congress?”

The question refers to the mayor’s ability to veto ordinances. Under current law, the mayor has no veto. Measure L would grant the mayor power to veto ordinances. But the council could override that veto with a supermajority vote (Six votes or 75 percent of the council. Opponents have used this point, saying it would make it harder to override a strong mayor’s veto).

“Let’s break it down, it’s going from five people to six people … it’s going from five people, five votes out of eight to six votes out of eight,” said Rhee. “I get that because we are talking about smaller numbers, 75 seems like a whole scary thing, but let’s put it into context, it’s just one person.”

Hansen attacked the other side about its proposal to create an ethics committee under Measure L.

“If the team for L was serious about ethics, they would put this ethics ordinance in front of the council and say “Lets pass it now,” said Hansen. “Instead they’re buying friends on Facebook and buying their friends on Twitter while they talk about ethics in rooms like this.”

Sacramento residents will be able to cast their vote on Measure L Nov. 4.