October 21, 2014 (Sac Bee, pg. A1)
A Sacramento Z special report on Measure L -
'THE STRONG MAYOR PROPOSAL'
The Sacramento Z is going to ask the 'Unasked Question'
The one that nobody else is asking...
The frontpage story (and half the back page) in today's Sacramento Bee declares:
"Johnson pitches ballot measure"
—the strong-mayor proposal, Measure L (which The Z has covered in several of its stories.)
On the surface, the Bee article on the strong mayor proposal appears to be somewhat 'fair&balanced'—arguments on both sides, experts from either camp, cautions and encouragments. It weights the pro side some, but on the whole, seems to cover the current scope of the debate. That is, except for one missing piece.
Before one can appreciate that missing item, something needs to be brought into the light. The question of Mayor Kevin Johnson's importance and role vis a vis the strong-mayor proposal has been bandied about on both sides. The supporters argue that it isn't about Johnson and then go right on to argue that it is what "Kevin Johnson" needs to get his agenda done in his "next term" and get himself re-elected.
By the same token, the opposition also points out that the issue isn't about the present mayor. They assert its about the mayor after him, and the next after that, and so on. For the opposition it's an issue of whether it's safe or wise, Johnson aside, to risk putting the proposed new powers in the hands of successive mayors and court delivering it into the hands of one, very bad, mayor who might use those powers to bring our city to the brink of disaster. Even today's Bee article mentions that such abuse of power with strong mayor systems has happened in other cities. So the argument is not specious.
But then, like their opposite number, those against Measure L go right on to say how skilled Mayor Johnson is at getting things done under the current system.
Knowing that much informs us that the issue of Measure L on this November's ballot is about our current mayor. In today's article, the Bee characterizes Measure L as "Jonnson's strong mayor plan." In other stories, they have even gone so far as to suggest that Kevin Johnson being elected to another term as mayor depends on whether Measure L passes or not.
The 'Z' doesn't agree with that assessment but, in any case, Mayor Johnson does loom as the central issue and figure in the debate about Measure L. Yet none of our press or media has bothered to address the obvious red-flag question that fact implies:
Exactly what is it the mayor has in his mind that he feels can only be done by changing the structure of our government and putting new powers into his hands— things which he cannot get done under the present system?
What, exactly, are those things he intends for the future of our city? What does he have in mind that he presumes the City Council, given its current trump hand, will oppose or thwart at every turn? We are not talking here about vague general things like promoting "public safety", or "making our schools better", which seem to have as much attention and concern on the Council as they do in the Mayor's office. Not the kinds of campaign-speech things we get bludgeoned with each election.
Rather, what are the big projects, the major shifts in direction, the bold visions that need Measure L to get done? What are the items, presently known only to the mayor himself, that may engender substantial risk for all of us as much as they might promise equally substantial benefit?
Because, until that question gets asked, point-blank, the voters have no way of knowing if it's worth restructuring their government and taking the real risks that doing so entertains, in return for the potential benefits this particular mayor and his strong-mayor proposal might have to offer. Not knowing the unvarnished answer to that question, the voter cannot possibly gauge the results of voting on the strong-mayor proposal, one way or the other.
Even the experts quoted in today's Bee article suggest "In strong mayor cities, the path depends upon the mayor's priorities," and, "in a strong system, you put a lot of leadership eggs into one basket." The director of USC's Price School and professor of public administration, was quoted saying, "If you're going to make radical changes, then the strong mayor can make that happen a little bit easier." [emphasis ours - ed.]
What they are saying is that there are risks in making such systemic changes, as well as value in doing so. However, unless we know specifically what ideas our Johnson-attached, strong mayor proposal brings with it, the voters of Sacramento can't possibly know if it's worth taking those risks.
For that matter, it has been presumed (by both sides) that Mayor Johnson's use of these new powers would be benign and beneficial. Which raises another question that no one dares to ask:
Would our current mayor use such power in a fully ethical way—one that would always
respect the will of the people? What guarantee of that do we have?
There's good evidence that the question is not so easily answered as some might think. We have already seen Mayor Johnson quite willing to circumvent and thwart the will of the people in the arena-vote issue, successfully blocking an attempt to permit the voters to decide the matter.
Whether the arena deal was a good move or a bad one remains to be seen, and it will take some time to know that. That's not the issue. But it can be said that avoiding a public vote on the matter was less than a "direct connection with the voters". Proponents of Measure L say "more directly representing voters" is a corollary of measure L. But it is just as reasonable to say Johnson's behavior in the arena-vote affair was an exercise in "directly disconnecting with the voters" and entirely unethical regardless of how bad he wanted "to get the job done." What's to say that won't be the aspect of Measure L we see in a Kevin Johnson invested with new powers?
Ethical governance would suggest that a mayor would have had enough confidence in the voters, as well as his or her ability to make the case before them. But that didn't happen with the attempt to let the voters have a say in the arena. What happened was that the voters were excluded from hearing the real case to be made and deciding the matter on its merits. And Mayor Johnson had both his hands in the strategy that cut the voters out of that decision-making process. We're not saying that he would use new powers that way. But we do say it is another side to the question that no one has raised, not in the press or other media.
As The Z has stated elsewhere, we take no position on the Measure L itself. Still, there is no major dysfunction, crises or city-shaking scandal in Sacramento at the moment. So it seems quite appropriate to ask, "What's the rush?" Changing your form of government is a big deal, and we haven't even answered the first of our questions, let alone a lot of other thorny ones that have yet to be raised. This is not a matter for cheerleading a lot of purple shirts and declaring you have come up with "the solution to everything."
There may be a raft of much better ideas than a strong mayor system that might emerge if the matter was given at least a couple of election cycles to mature. The Z has even suggested a few z-axis directions that might offer food for thought. We offer another here to consider (without suggesting its worth) if we gave ourselves the time to contemplate such possibilities.
Suppose we put the shoe on the other foot? Let's give the mayor his expanded powers, but also note that there is no real safeguard built into Measure L (hence the validity of the argument that it could turn out very badly).
So, what if we built the safeguard into the Council side of things? Suppose we made it tough, but doable. Let's say, if seven out of nine Council members felt a mayor with expanded powers was getting out of hand—really jeopardizing the well-being of the city, or seriously risking its future stability—then the Council might be provided a (new) power to immediately (though temporarily) remove the mayor from office, install the vice-mayor as Mayor Pro Temp, and call for a special election for the voters to ultimately decide the matter. That wouldn't make it easy for the Council to invoke such a provision (though harder for them than the current 6 votes the Mayor needs to get for some of his actions). But it would, at least, provide some assuance against the day it might be needed.
We're not to saying its a good idea, and we're not proposing it. Only to say, with a little time and more careful reflection, we might do much better than rush into one mayor's idea, tailored to suit himself and his anticpation of being re-elected.
Near the start of today's Bee article there's an interesting quote from an elections expert at Loyala Law School, "It's ultimately an act of faith to create a strong mayor." That may be true, but we see no reason to make a religious exercise out of the matter. It is a matter for considerable thought and yes, caution.
Marcos Breton's suggestion that people who might wish to give such matters as "Johnson's strong mayor plan" the thought it deserves are somehow "afraid to move forward" is, at the least, insulting to the gift of human intellegence and how it is best utilized. As a thoughtful religious person might say, Sure it's a matter of faith, everything is. But it's equally certain that God expects a little help with such earthly matters. That's why we were provided organs of thought in the first place.