Has The Time Come For Sacramento To Empower Its Next Mayor?

By Jock O'Connell

This is the text of an article that was published in the January 2000 edition of Comstock's Business magazine.

Growing up in New England during the middle years of the last century, I had the good fortune to take one of the most refreshingly candid high school civics courses ever taught. The teacher was a Jesuit priest named Frank Curley, and the class was largely devoted to a surprisingly objective assessment of the remarkable political career of his father, the eminently corruptible James Michael Curley, proprietor of a political machine that dominated Boston politics for some five decades.

I begin by mentioning Curley because his is among the names of big city bosses that are routinely invoked as a conversation stopper whenever the discussion might turn to whether a given city might benefit from a more dynamic and responsive brand of leadership than is generally possible when the mayor is little more than a ceremonial figure with few formal powers.

For more than a century, good government advocates -- most notably those operating in the guise of the Progressive Reform movement -- sought to keep old-fashioned politics out of City Hall, in part by keeping popularly-elected mayors relatively weak. Even today, fears persist that giving a mayor more political clout would simply set the stage for another Curley or Richard Daley or Thomas Pendergast or even that Boss of Bosses, William Marcy Tweed.

Whether such fears would ever be borne out in Sacramento is pretty much a moot question. There are few traces of any genuine interest in revising Sacramento's city charter to provide for a "strong" mayor -- one who would become, in effect, the city's chief executive, equipped with the power to hire and fire the heads of city departments as well as to veto city council actions. Certainly with the death in November of Mayor Joe Serna, Jr., there is no prominent champion of a strong mayor form of government for Sacramento. Instead, civic leaders interviewed for this article are in general agreement that a strong mayor proposal would be as much of a non-starter today as it was in 1990, when voters last grappled with the question. (More on that episode later.)

The Status Quo

Sacramento's current form of government was a direct product of the Progressive Reform movement. The present city charter, adopted in 1920, was based on a model city charter promulgated in 1915 by the National Municipal League, a primary vehicle for pushing the Progressive's municipal reform agenda. The River City has what political scientists describe as a mayor-council-manager form of government. The eight members of the city council are elected from districts, while the major, who presides over the council and votes in its deliberations, is elected city-wide. Together, they select a professional city manager who is responsible for implementing council policy and for running the machinery of city government on a day-to-day basis.

Over the past 80 years, the formula appears to have worked successfully. Sacramento has been a reasonably well-run city. There have been few juicy scandals over the years, no recent examples of flagrant malfeasance, and the Kings are still here. Who would want to change things, especially if change meant handing greater power over the city's affairs to a politician by adopting what's known as a "strong mayor" form of municipal government? Not many folks as it turns out, and virtually none of Those Who Would Be Mayor.

City Council member Rob Kerth, one of the six mayoral candidates, summed up the views of most of his colleagues when he opined that a strong major format would bring "no clear- cut advantage" and that changing the city charter to provide for one would be "a huge mistake." Similarly, former Sacramento Mayor Anne Rudin sees no useful purpose to be served in empowering the mayor. " Like many other interested observers, Rudin alluded to Pete Wilson's record in presiding over the revitalization of San Diego during his tenure as that city's mayor in the 1970s when she pointed out that "Pete Wilson had no greater power than the mayor of Sacramento has now."

"The thing to ask yourself is not whether a strong mayor is a good idea but, rather, is there a serious problem in our city that a strong mayor system would solve? In my view, there isn't." That's the appraisal of Professor Robert J. Waste, the highly regarded public policy expert at Sacramento State. He argues that ninety percent of the day-to-day business of city government takes place "below the water line, almost invisibly." In Waste's estimation: "For that 90%, a trained city manager in charge of departments staffed by trained professionals reporting directly to him or her is a pretty good way to run a railroad."

The sole mayoral candidate to support the idea of a strong mayor is Julie Padilla: "We have a full-time City Manager and full-time Chief of Police. The City of Sacramento deserves a full-time, fully empowered Mayor."

The Measure S Debacle

In many respects, current attitudes seem colored by what happened in 1990 when the idea of having a strong mayor was debated in the broader context of city-county merger. After two years of deliberations, a Charter Commission headed by Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce President Roy Brewer proposed the enlarged city be run by a two- tiered form of government. At the top would be a 11-member Council of Supervisors elected by district and a Mayor elected at-large. On a lower tier, there would be 20 community councils, consisting of at least five elected officials each, who would pass judgment on new development projects.

In its initial form, the charter commission's proposal called for a strong mayor. In addition to directly overseeing city-county departments and general growth patterns, this mayor would chair council meetings but would not have a vote in its deliberations. He or she would, however, be able to a veto council actions decisions. (A veto override would require eight votes.)

In June 1990, the charter commission brought its plan before a joint session of the city council and the county supervisors. In a dramatic three-hour meeting, the assembled leaders failed to agree on how much power the new mayor should have. By a 6-2 vote, the city council supported the charter commission. Among those voting for a strong mayor were council members Joe Serna, Jr., Heather Fargo, Josh Pane, Kim Mueller, Terry Kastanis, and Mayor Anne Rudin. Lyla Ferris and Lynn Robbie were opposed, and Tom Chinn, who opposed the county-city merger outright, abstained.

But the county supervisors voted the other way, 3-1. Supervisors Susan Smoley, Jim Streng, and Toby Johnson were all opposed to a strong mayor. Grantland Johnson, now a member of Gov. Gray Davis' cabinet, was the only supervisor supporting the proposal. Illa Collin abstained.

Rebuffed, Brewer's commission went back to the drawing board and came up with a new proposal. This one called for a 12-member council, this time including a mayor who, while no longer having a veto, would vote in council deliberations. In fact, the mayor would have the right to vote twice — a second time, if needed to break a tie.

In the end, Measure S -- the overall city-county merger package -- was voted down in the general election that year by a 58-42 margin. To be sure, the outcome did not turn on the issue of mayoral power but rather on concerns about the impact of the merger on taxes, the level of police protection, and the future of development. But the intense disagreements among county and city elected officials certainly did not bode well for future efforts to revisit the topic.

Following his election as mayor in 1992, Joe Serna asked outgoing Mayor Anne Rudin to informally canvass opinion about the prospects of a city charter revision that would enhance the mayor's strength. But Rudin's conclusion was that the proposal lacked public support and should be quietly shelved.

That's what happened and that's where it remains today, with no evidence it would enjoy any more support now than it has in the past. If anything has changed, it is that the economic prosperity of the past few years, while blunting popular distaste for government, has also led the public to grow even more disengaged from the political processes that run their city.

The one area of reform upon which receives some support is the desirability of making the posts of mayor and city council member full-time jobs, with appropriate compensation. (For reference, the Sacramento County Supervisors make roughly $65,000 a year in salary and allowances. That's about three times what a Sacramento city council members receive for their services, even though council members devote 30 to 40 hours a week to their official duties.)

Even on this issue, city council step warily. There is concern that a council-backed initiative to establish a full-time council would look self-serving, even though it could be written to exempt incumbent council members. There is also concern about whether a full- time council would become a roost for political careerists. Sacramento attorney and mayoral candidate Joseph Genshlea prefers having a part-time council made up of "citizens of good judgment who understand the vagaries of life." But to council member Heather Fargo, also a mayoral candidate, "the biggest flaw in the present system is that the mayors and council members cannot devote themselves full-time to their responsibilities."

Another mayoral aspirant, Council Member Steve Cohn, believes there is no public support for the move. "My polling data suggest support for a full-time council is tepid at best." Cohn thinks a more palatable reform would involve combining a full-time council proposal with provisions for term limits and campaign finance restrictions.

New Realities and Novel Challenges

Although Sacramento does seem to have flourished with its current form of government, things do change. The mayor-council-manager model seems to work best, according to many scholars, in communities that remain fairly stable and homogeneous.

But what of cities being buffeted by change, by the social and political consequences of a population that is growing larger and more heterogenous? Ironically, historians suggest, one of the few virtues of the old-line political machines along the Eastern seaboard is that they did a pretty good job of ushering their cities through an era of turbulent change.

The changes that threaten to disturb the customary rhythms of life in Sacramento stem principally from the anticipated level of population growth expected to occur in the six- county region over the next several years. Although the city sits at the hub of the region, it has an exceedingly limited say in what happens elsewhere in the region. Yet what happens beyond its immediate boundaries will assuredly have a profound impact on the city.

James R. King, president of Applied Development Economics, a consulting firm with offices in Berkeley and Sacramento. King worries that without a strong mayor no one in the region will look to Sacramento's City Hall for guidance or leadership on regional issues. "Who's going to listen to a mayor who can't deliver, who has to go back and haggle with the city council and cajole the city manager?"

The Serna Model

For the most part, though, Sacramentans are not disposed to share King's concerns. Rather than concede the potentially for a leadership vacuum, most draw comfort from the Serna Model.

While most of those vying for mayor in the city's March 7 primary election profess to eschew the notion of adopting a strong mayor format, they all promise to be strong mayors. The example they have in mind is Joe Serna and the way he used his office as a ‘bully pulpit' to exert influence despite the formal limitations of his office.

According to UC Davis political scientist Al Sokolow, "Joe Serna was the latest in a line of ‘weak mayors' in medium-sized and large cities who proved that political smarts and leadership skills could more than compensate for the limited hand they were dealt."

Learning valuable lessons at every step along the way, Joe Serna felt his way through the political terrain of city government and ultimately came to realize that "weak" mayors don't leave their mark by fighting City Hall, by butting heads with city council members or city managers. Rather, they find broad challenges by seizing the initiative on issues that transcend the normal political divisions of city hall. For some mayors like Tom Bradley, the issue was economic revitalization especially of downtown. In Serna's case, that issue become the city's deplorable schools and its dysfunctional school board. It was an issue tailor-made for an assertive leader wearing the vestments of a weak mayor.

There is broad agreement that Serna's most notable accomplishment as mayor was launching the reform movement that has turned around the Sacramento City Unified School District. Doing so, however, required that Serna step move beyond the mayor's customary role, since the mayor and city government do not run the schools. His rationale: "You can't have a great city without great schools."

He commissioned a blue-ribbon group to analyze the underperforming district, then recruited a "reform" slate of school board candidates. That slate won and has been credited with improving the district and winning back public confidence in the administration of the city's schools. The proof of that was voter approval of a $175 million school bond last fall.

"I hope if I have done anything as mayor, it is that I have changed the office, even though it is constitutionally weak," Serna said early last year, perhaps as an implicit challenge to his successor. "You can really lead if you take some risks. I don't know how else you define leadership in that office. It is not an office for ceremonial leaders. Otherwise you are taking up oxygen."


An international business consultant by day, Jock O'Connell has been a keen observer of politics in the Sacramento area since moving here in 1971. His controversial essay on the future of the Sacramento region, "How Green Was Our Valley: A Cautionary Tale of 2020 Sacramento," appeared in the Sacramento Bee in March 1998 and has become required reading in local government courses at both Sacramento State and UC Davis.