Johnson's First Year: Struggle to Build Consensus Slows Agenda

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(Sacramento, CA)
Thursday, December 3, 2009
This week marks one year since Kevin Johnson became mayor of Sacramento.  It’s Johnson’s first elected office, so he’s had to learn on the job.  Over the last year, Johnson has made progress on several fronts: He addressed Sacramento’s highly publicized homelessness problem and helped the city avoid police and fire layoffs. But Johnson’s struggle to build consensus at City Hall is slowing his agenda.

One Year Through the Lens of a Single Week

If you want to know what Kevin Johnson’s first year as mayor has been like, check out two starkly different events from the first week of November, 2009.
Johnson: “So what I need you to do is say, Sacramento – (crowd chants “Sacramento”) – steps – (“Steps”) – forward – (“Forward!”) (repeats)…”
That’s the mayor announcing a new effort to combat homelessness at a tightly-choreographed rally.  His goal: 2400 permanent housing options over the next three years.
Johnson: “Today is the first step, where we’re all gonna step forward to be a model city.  I am not interested in all of us doing these efforts to just do it half – (pauses for crowd to chime in) – halfway.”
Kevin Johnson isn’t interested in doing anything halfway.  It’s not his style.  That same week, the mayor announced a private task force would accept proposals for a new Sacramento Kings basketball arena.  It was the latest example of Johnson going around City Hall bureaucracy to keep his agenda moving forward.  But the mayor’s impatient approach has also worked against him.  Take, for instance, that week’s council meeting:
Johnson: “All right, we’re on Item 13, the Sacramento Charter Review Committee…”
That commission was reporting back on its study of the city’s charter and system of government.  The council created the commission after Johnson’s “strong mayor” initiative qualified for the ballot.  Instead of proposing at least some increases to the mayor’s powers, the charter commission rebuked Johnson by suggesting only a few small changes.  Here’s commission chair and former city manager Bill Edgar after the meeting:
Edgar: “I think the current initiative is a very extreme proposal, overreaching and should be rejected by the voters summarily.  It confers much too much power on one individual.”
The mayor believes the commission is basically reinforcing the status quo, and says that’s not what the public wants.  Still, not a single council member supports Johnson’s initiative – they’re upset they weren’t consulted, and feel it goes too far.

Mayor, Council Struggle to Get Along
Elmets: “This week epitomizes the mayor’s first year in office.”
Sacramento political analyst Doug Elmets says some council members have held the mayor’s agenda back by playing petty politics.  But he says Johnson bears responsibility too.
Elmets: “He’s had very good intentions, but has had challenges implementing those – in part because of his poor relationship with the city council.”
Steve Cohn, who’s one of the mayor’s most supportive council members, agrees.
Cohn:He brings a lot of energy, a lot of good ideas and in some cases I think we are making significant progress.  In other areas, I think because of the Strong Mayor initiative, for example, we’ve had more distractions, and that takes us away from getting the job done.”
One of the best examples, Cohn says, is Johnson’s push to audit city departments.  The mayor tried several times, but it took the council months to get on board. 

Learning to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable
That’s not at all to say Johnson can’t bring people to the table – when he wants to.  The mayor has a lot of support in the business community.  And he’s played a leading role in bringing conflicting sides together to work on Sacramento’s homelessness problem.  Sister Libby Fernandez with the Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen has worked closely with Johnson over the last several months.
Sister Libby:He sees the big picture – the region picture.  He’s really getting hands-on grips with who the players are and who not to forget in any discussion.  And people, I think, are really letting him know – because they want him to continue to grow, learn and not give up. He is not giving up”
And while some of Johnson’s backers believe he needs to work on his political skills, they’re not giving up on him either.  Bill Camp with the Sacramento Central Labor Council endorsed the mayor in last year’s campaign.  He doesn’t like the strong mayor initiative at all but still supports many of Johnson’s policies.
Camp:I think Kevin Johnson has a great role to play in the future of this city.  But there will always be things on which we negotiate.  Negotiating your differences is fundamentally what responsible exercise of authority is all about.”
Johnson may be starting to recognize this. Here’s what he said earlier this week about getting along with the city council:
Johnson:I think we all have a responsibility to share as much common ground as we have, and then when we disagree, have a spirited debate on what we disagree – but it doesn’t have to become disagreeable.  And we haven’t quite found that balance yet.”
Johnson’s supporters – and some analysts too – say the mayor has proven himself a quick learner.  He speaks more fluently about city policies now than he did a year ago, and he’s grown more comfortable talking to the media.  How quickly he learns to build alliances on the city council could determine how much the mayor improves from Year One to Year Two.