The question of whether Sacramento needs a "strong mayor" will go to voters again, after City Council placed Mayor Darrell Steinberg's bid for more executive power on the November ballot.
The "strong mayor" model of government would change the role of the city's top elected official. But how would it actually impact your everyday life in Sacramento?
Quite a lot, according to experts, depending on your view what a city government should be able to do for its residents.
“On the one hand, there’s a better connection of accountability between voters and the executive branch,” Wesley Hussey, a political science professor at Sacramento State said of a strong mayor form of government. “But on the other hand, in cities that have a critical mass of ethnic minorities or ethnic racial groups, they actually benefit from having stronger city councils and weaker mayors, because they have representation on the city council in larger numbers, and they’re able to use that power to influence decisions made in the city.”
He said that at its core, a strong mayor system of governance means that much of the power to change a city will be in the hands of the mayor, and that could be good or bad.
“For a big city, there’s better accountability, because people are voting for a mayor,” Hussey said. “We’re used to, as Americans, having an executive branch, and we’re used to that as a system.”
Steinberg, who secured six of his colleagues votes to place his "strong mayor" plan on the ballot, says he would like to push an agenda of equity and inclusive investment in underserved communities, but that he would be in a better position to do so under a executive mayor system.
“Here is the fundamental reality of our city governance today — that is its primary responsibility is to assure the health of the city organization,” Steinberg said during last week’s council meeting. “Its primary responsibility is not to invest its resources into the neighborhoods and the community, especially the neighborhoods and community that have been long left behind. Ask yourself this, why has there never been a consistent economic equity agenda in our city?”
But in terms of representation, Hussey said he wasn’t sure if a strong mayor system was best.
“I’m not sure on an equity level if it makes sense to have a strong mayor, particularly if the strong mayor is white,” Hussey continued. “If Sacramento is a city that has a lot of diversity, which we’re very proud of, it’s hard for one ethnic group to dominate in the city government, particularly if different racial and ethnic groups are in different parts of the city.t might make sense to be electing members to represent their community and then they come together as a city council and negotiate out how to run a city, rather than just one strong person making those decisions.”
But West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon, who is also a professor of public policy at Sacramento State, says a strong mayor system can mean faster change.
“Cities with stronger mayor systems are better able to move rapidly and able to make changes that are less popular in terms of the status quo, so being able to move forward with more aggressive change and see how it works, as opposed to systems that are more heavily weighted towards achieving consensus prior to action,” Cabaldon said.
Cabaldon, an ally of Steinberg, said that when it comes to racial justice, it’s more difficult for a city council to come to a consensus “around significant tectonic change on the issue.”
“In those cases, you might expect that a strong mayor directly accountable to voters would have more capacity and freedom to be able to take actions that might be less popular on Tuesday, but more popular a year from now,” Cabaldon said.
Flojaune Cofer, senior director of policy for Public Health Advocates and the chairperson of the city’s Measure U Community Advisory Committee, said she worries that regular Sacramentans would see the shift most in the power of their city councilmembers.
“The way in which this will really change things is in terms of who is making these decisions,” Cofer said. “Now you have a person who has the ability to veto ordinances that come to their desk, so it’ll change all of the ways that city council members come together to make decisions.”
Kula Koenig of Sacramento’s Black Women Organized for Political Action chapter agreed.
Koening said Sacramento’s city council is on the verge of being the most progressive and diverse council the city has ever seen, but under a strong mayor form of governance, the councilmembers would need the mayor’s approval before making change.
“Your councilmember is no longer beholden to you, your councilmember is beholden to the mayor,” she said.
Mary Beth Moylan,a professor at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law, did a study looking at the 2014 strong mayor ballot proposal under former mayor Kevin Johnson. She said what she saw the divide coming down to was whether Sacramentans saw power as coming from a network of neighborhoods or from a more centralized city.
“The structure of government that we have in Sacramento lends itself more to cities which are driven by neighborhoods more than they are by a centralized city,” Moylan said. “So I think that there was a sense [in 2014] that Sacramento, at least at that time, was a coalition of neighborhoods, and people wanted the power to remain with the city councilors and in the neighborhoods.”
She added, however, that this year has been very different for many residents than years past.
“The pandemic and the social unrest has caused people to think differently about what the role of all levels of government are, and so I don’t know which way it cuts,” she said. “I just think it’s an interesting moment in time to be thinking about changes.”
This November, Sacramento voters will not only weigh in on giving the mayor more executive powers, but also whether to codify policies such as participatory budgeting and a ninth council member in the city charter.
In 2014, city voters soundly rejected then-Mayor Kevin Johnson's similar strong-mayor proposal.