Tension Building at City Hall Over Strong Mayor Measure

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(Sacramento, CA)
Friday, January 16, 2009

Liberman: “Can I have a second of your time real quick?  We’re trying to have people sign a strong mayor initiative.”
Woman: “That’s why I’m here.”
Liberman: “Oh, excellent!”
At a midtown burger joint along the Capital City Freeway, Zach Liberman is hunting for registered voters.  He’s a paid signature gatherer from Southern California.  And Sacramentans for Accountable Government has raised the money to bring him to town.
Liberman: “Can I get you right here?  And right here …”
Liberman’s gathering signatures for two initiatives: one that would make the mayor the “chief executive” of the city, like a governor or president, and another to create an independent budget analyst.  Johnson wants to take both of them directly to voters – without running them by the city council.  Kim Mack co-chairs the grassroots group.
Mack: “This organization was founded not just to push two initiatives and then go away.  This organization was founded as a vehicle for Sacramentans to use to hold their government accountable to them.” 
And political analysts say there’s no end to what Johnson and his backers could do.  Sacramento State communications professor Barbara O’Connor says Johnson is building an organization that’s half-Barack Obama and half-Arnold Schwarzenegger.
O’Connor: “The governor’s been very adept at going to the people when he doesn’t get what he wants from elected officials.  He banks on the people not liking government.  And that’s the same model that Kevin Johnson is using in the neighborhoods of Sacramento.  He also has the tech savvy of the Obama campaign to make sure that everyone who hasn’t really participated in government historically is informed, engaged and involved.” 
But by going straight to the voters, Johnson is rubbing several city council members the wrong way.  Privately, they say they feel out of the loop, and that the mayor is moving too fast.  Those tensions culminated at Tuesday’s council meeting.
Trethaway: “Very awkward.  Very awkward for me.” 
Ray Trethaway was one of several council members who voiced concerns over another of Johnson’s proposals – one to audit city finances.  He said it bypassed the public process and didn’t have the usual safeguards.  So Trethaway and four other members blocked it.
Trethaway: “On the one hand, I endorse the mayor’s intent.  On the other, I think the issue is a little bit off target and the timetable is too short.” 
And on the strong mayor amendment, even councilwoman Sandy Sheedy, one of Johnson’s strongest supporters during the campaign, says she has reservations about the mayor going directly to voters.
Sheedy: “It’s always better to work with the city council and the mayor’s office to work together.  I’m hoping that we can do that.  I’m hoping that this makes us come together and not apart.  Only time will tell on that.” 
At least one council member, Steve Cohn, says he’s comfortable with both the mayor’s quick pace and his grassroots group.  And none have come out against the initiatives yet.  Instead, council members say they want to take a closer look – and Johnson says that’s great.
Johnson: “We fully embrace it.  I mean, the reason why we came out with the proposals as early as we did in December was to create a dialogue and give the public and community a chance to have a discussion on a very important issue in the community.” 
But if the talks don’t work out, well, that’s where Sacramentans for Accountable Government comes in.  If Johnson’s backers get enough signatures, the mayor can take his agenda directly to voters – whether City Hall likes it or not.