Commentary: A “Strong Mayor”?

By David Watts Barton,, June 24, 2010

Sometimes you can want something so much, and push for it so hard, that you end up creating the opposite of what you wanted.

Which is perhaps how we’ve ended up with such a weak mayor.

That was never more clear than on Tuesday night, when Mayor Kevin Johnson’s dogged pursuit of a “strong mayor” remake of the city charter went down – spectacularly – at the hands of a city council united against him.

Smart, driven, confident and somewhat charismatic, Johnson came into office on a tide of support that gave him what pundits like to call political capital. But he also came in at a difficult time, with a city government at its most stressed and dysfunctional, and with questions about his character hovering in the background. He had his work cut out for him.

But which issue to address first? Crippling budget deficits? All-powerful fire and police unions? A controversial city manager? A corrupted building department? The crushing local effects of a failing state government? Homelessness?

Johnson gave all of these issues his attention, with initiatives launched to great fanfare. And he has made progress in some areas. But his famous focus has been most consistently brought to bear on something he seems to care about more than anything else: the so-called “strong mayor” initiative. In his administration’s collective mind, this issue became the cure-all for all the other problems he and this city face. Corruption in the development department? A strong mayor would have accountability for that. Police chief leaving town? A strong mayor could talk him into staying. Problems with the former city manager? Make the mayor accountable.

Over the last year, nearly everything became an opportunity to push the strong mayor agenda. But in the process, Johnson and his smart, well-credentialed but perhaps slightly tone-deaf advisers seem to have misunderstood what real strength is.

Tuesday night, the Sacramento City Council gave Johnson a lesson in language. In a 7-2 vote against instructing the city attorney to draw up language to put the initiative on the ballot in November – one of the two “for” votes being Johnson’s own – the council showed the would-be strong mayor who really had the strength: the people’s elected representatives. All nine of them.

When all but one of the people you’re working with on a daily basis tell you they don’t want to give you even a CHANCE of getting what you want – and the one person who voted with you is a lame duck whose own constituents recently rebuked him at the ballot box in nearly the same proportion – you aren’t even in the game.

So what did the mayor do? First he spent time at the council meeting criticizing every member of the council who didn’t do what he wanted in a rambling, often-personal diatribe that must have felt good to him but again undermined the statesman-like image he has wanted to create. Then he told The Sacramento Press: “The agents of status quo — a small group of people — are still dictating what happens in our community.”

Then he went to a fundraiser…for the strong mayor initiative.

This is not strength. This is obsession, or plain old bull-headedness. This is repeating what you’ve been doing and expecting a different result. And it has most likely set his fellow council members against him even more adamantly.

The council should have let the process go forward so we could actually see what the mayor is proposing, and the people could vote on it. On the other hand, the mayor’s office has resisted releasing any explicit proposal. And they have rebuffed requests by Sacramento Press reporter Kathleen Haley to see a copy of an earlier draft of the proposal. So much for transparency.

Perhaps the city charter does need to be rewritten. Sacramento may well need a stronger executive, a modernized city government structure that reflects our growing community. Certainly, what we’re doing now isn’t working, as Johnson has long pointed out. And a city council that spends time voting for boycotts of other states when they can’t even get their own city in order needs to get a grip and get to work. Johnson’s adversaries on the council aren’t using their power very well, either.

But Kevin Johnson has not proved himself worthy of increased power. He is, in fact, showing that he doesn’t know how to use the power he already has, which is considerable. Had he come into office armed with the power of persuasion, if he had shown that he knew how to work with the people who preceded him onto the council, some by many years and with much greater political and civil experience, if he had shown them the respect he himself is seeking through the strong mayor initiative, if he had shown a little humility along with his drive and focus, well…who knows what he might have accomplished?

We still would not have a strong mayor system (yet), but we would have a much stronger mayor. We might have a mayor who recognizes that he is one of nine people who need to put aside their differences and work together for the sake of this city.

The great shame of this is that Johnson has in some respects proven himself a first-among-equals with his initiatives in the arts, in homelessness and, above all, in using his basketball fame to promote Sacramento outside of town and even amongst its own citizenry. He has pushed long-dormant projects such as the Riverfront Promenade and the Railyards to move ahead. His heart seems to be in the right place, and he has a sharp group of advisers that has taken a can-do approach that is widely-admired among city staff and other people in city government who want to get things done. He aims high.

But he has overshot on the strong mayor initiative. His apparent inability to use persuasion to get what he wants has brought his administration to a crushing defeat. I say this with disappointment. I have been a defender of the mayor on more occasions than I expected. I find the constant, mean-spirited references to old controversies and salacious rumors distasteful and not in the best interests of getting things done. He has faced a lot of haters, and done so with a smile. I admire his can-do attitude and focus on the positive. He has chosen to take on a difficult job in his hometown when he could be a commentator on ESPN, working in New York and relaxing in Vegas. And Johnson is up against some entrenched, intransigent interests — both on and off the council — which must be frustrating.

But our mayor now needs to stop obsessing about getting more strength and start using the strength he already has. Had he done that from the start, we might now see a council that was prepared to give him more leeway to pursue even more successful initiatives. He might have seven allies on the council, not seven adversaries.

As it is, we are now looking at a council that is even more broken than it was when he was elected, and a city government that is shrinking by the week, and along with it, the services that are more desperately needed than ever by a rightly-cynical citizenry.

Indeed, our mayor has succeeded in achieving one thing this dysfunctional city council has not seen in many years: He has united it. Unfortunately for him, and for all of us, he has united it against himself.

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