Mayor Darrell Steinberg says that Sacramento’s current system of government, which some call a “weak mayor” model, has kept him from being able to fully enact recent demands for police reforms and for equity in how it allocates its budget.
With the backing of powerhouse local organizations like the Sierra Health Foundation and the Greater Sacramento Urban League, Steinberg put forward a proposed ballot measure on Thursday that would change the city’s charter to a “strong mayor” model. The Sacramento Central Labor Council has discussed the plan with Steinberg, but has not yet taken a position on the proposal.
The mayor is asking that his City Council colleagues put his plan on the November ballot when it meets next Tuesday.
“Any future mayor, with the right amount of checks and balances, ought to have some authority to be able to lead in the direction that the people who elected him or her are demanding,” Steinberg told CapRadio.
Sacramento has historically had a “council-mayor” or “weak mayor” form of government, where the city manager’s office has typically held more power than the mayor, because that office has the ability to hire and fire city officials and also propose the budget.
But Steinberg says this dynamic has hindered his ability to make changes that have come up during many of the George Floyd demonstrations.
“I’ve had a good successful first term. I just believe that the times demand in this growing and more complex city that the person, whoever it is, who’s accountable to the voters, ought to have some authority to be able to lead in the direction that the people expect,” the mayor said.
Under Steinberg’s proposal, he would have the power to elect and remove the city manager but would no longer have a vote on City Council.
The mayor would also be in charge of proposing the city’s budget, and he would have the ability to veto budget items.
Other cities with “strong mayor” governments include Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.
This would not be the first time voters have been asked to weigh in on the strong-mayor debate.
In 2014, then-city Mayor Kevin Johnson put a Measure L to voters, which would have created an executive-mayor system. It was soundly defeated.
Steinberg backed that strong-mayor effort at the time, and has occasionally alluded to a desire for more executive authority during his first term.
Critics emerged soon after Steinberg’s announcement on Thursday, calling his move a power play.
Council member-elect Katie Valenzuela, who will take over as representative of the central city later this year, says she is skeptical giving the mayor more power will lead to more equitable policy and investment.
“I’m adamantly opposed to ‘strong mayor’ and frustrated that community members are being leveraged to support such a blatant power grab in exchange for other half-measures that will fail to result in meaningful reform,” Valenzuela said. “I do not believe centralizing power to this degree will create greater transparency or accountability, and in fact will likely achieve just the opposite.”
Meanwhile on Thursday, several organizations and nonprofits joined Steinberg in support of a strong-mayor ballot measure.
“We believe these reforms represent an evolution of our city into one that is even more inclusive, equitable, and accountable to all of the people,” said Cassandra Jennings, with the Greater Sacramento Urban League, and who is also the wife of Council member Rick Jennings..
She added that she did not believe this ballot proposal was as much about mayoral power as it was about reforming the city’s ability to make more equitable policies.
The proposal has the backing of other nonprofits around the city whose representatives said on Thursday that, if Sacramento had a mayor with more executive power, the city could be better equipped to handle the coronavirus and racial injustice.
“The current health crisis and the global pandemic really underscores the need for city government that is adaptable and able to act decisively. While we have no doubt the City Council and city officials are doing the best they can, we recognize the need to empower our leaders in times like this so they can act quickly to the needs of our community,” said Rachel Rios, executive director of La Familia Counseling Center.
When it comes to specific ways, a “strong mayor” position would allow him to more nimbly respond during a crisis. Steinberg cited the debate over how to spend Measure U sales tax revenue.
He says that, had he been able to have power over the city’s budget, he could have honored the promise to invest Measure U revenue in underserved communities.
His proposed ballot measure also includes items that would require the city to take racial, ethnic and gender equity into account when considering policies, and it would establish a participatory budget program for citizens to have some say over spending.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the position of the Sacramento Central Labor Council. The organization has not yet taken a position.
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