Mayor’s strong mayor plan dead — for now

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson’s plan to reorganize Sacramento city government into a strong-mayor system is in free fall. Today, Judge Loren McMaster of Sacramento County issued his final ruling that officially removes the Sacramento Charter Reform Initiative from the June 8 ballot.

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson
According to the judge’s Jan. 21 ruling, the initiative, which Mayor Johnson has been advocating since his 2008 election, was not an amendment to the Sacramento City Charter, but a revision of the charter itself. It is against California state law to make wide-sweeping changes to a city’s charter through the initiative process.

Sacramentans for Accountable Government, the citizen group behind getting the charter reform initiative on the ballot, immediately responded to the ruling, vowing that today’s verdict was the start of a protracted legal fight to keep the measure on the June ballot.

“This is nothing more than a legal hurdle in our path to modernizing Sacramento’s governance structure,” the group said in an e-mail statement. “One judge’s ruling will not silence the 50,000 voters who signed a petition to put the strong mayor initiative on the ballot.”


Changing the city charter

Ultimately, the Sacramento Charter Reform Initiative would grant Mayor Johnson and all future Sacramento mayors the power to run the city government directly as a chief executive. Called a strong-mayor system, the city council would work as a deliberative legislative, oversight body and the mayor would act as the executive of the city government, with the power to hire and fire employees and conduct the city’s day-to-day business.

Most cities with a population of 400,000 or more (San Francisco, Fresno, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego) have this system; only San Jose does not. According to publically available population data, the city of Sacramento’s population was 463,794 in 2007.

Currently, the Sacramento City Charter authorizes a council-manager governing system; such systems, employed by the vast majority of California cities, provide for public representation and oversight on a city council as a city’s day-to-day business is run by a city manager. In the current system, the responsibility of Sacramento’s mayor is mainly as an at-large councilmember that chairs city council meetings. Although the role comes with a large cache of political power, the mayor alone has no real authority over the inner-workings of the city government.

Johnson believes that changing the City Charter would help him accomplish the goals he spoke of during his 2008 election run.

“During my first months at City Hall, I am hearing residents that demand more action from their government. In these tough times, you want less red tape. A greater vision. More emphasis on public safety, economic development, and our schools,” wrote Johnson in an online statement to Sacramento residents. “You rightly deserve a Mayor and Council that reflects your views, and will make the decisions to move Sacramento to the next level as the world-class city it deserves to be.”


E-mail Ryan Rose at