An essay by Pat Lynch
Voting time again. This is generally a ho-hum election because there’s no big sexy neck-and-neck contest to rivet us. Jerry Brown will likely sail through and, unlike Scotland, the wannabe separatist counties in California haven’t managed to get their rural independence cravings on the ballot. But we do have our local propositions.
Prominent among them is Measure L, the Strong Mayor proposal. Many oppose the Strong Mayor scheme because, apparently, they have read American urban history. They recall Strong Mayor (“Boss”) Daley who ran the infamously crooked Chicago political machine. Then there’s Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall who orchestrated the high-functioning New York operation that cranked out batches of strong mayors, patronage and graft. Tweed biographer Kenneth Ackerman asserts, “the Tweed ring at its height was an engineering marvel, strong and solid, strategically deployed to control key power points: the courts, the legislature, the treasury and the ballot box. Its frauds had a grandeur of scale…money laundering, profit sharing and organization.” In sum, the Tweed era was a heyday for expansion, and insiders—developers especially– got rich and richer.
The power grab excesses of Strong Mayors are pretty much legendary, that is, if one takes the time to research. Our current mayor wants to be one of the strong ones. He spent most of his last State of the City speech orating about the King Arena. He pushed through a publicly subsidized arena even though Sacramentans twice voted down this subsidy. Bankrolled by developers, his priorities are clear. His champions are rich. What chance do mere pipsqueak citizens have against this array of power and money?
Take heart. Last year in Columbia, South Carolina, citizens opposed a Goliath Strong-Mayor coalition made up of the Governor (Nikki Haley), a former governor, the Chamber of Commerce, the mayor of Charleston, and the State newspaper editorial board. “Never doubt the power of a small group of citizens coming together and working together,” said Kit Smith, one of the Davids who slew the giant. Said another, in defense of the City Manager-Council form of government, “If it’s not broken, don’t break it.”
Portland is so charming and successful a city that a TV series presently satirizes its more far-out residents. You know a city has arrived when Hollywood acknowledges and exploits it. Portland thrives. It retains a Mayor-City Manager-City Council form of government. Why? Because people there believe that “shared leadership is better than centralized power.” Portland also employs its City Council as a “governing board that focuses on coherent policymaking and oversight of administrative performance.” Sounds like checks and balances to me. Simply, shared power is bound to be more representative, more democratic.
I don’t think we should pass a Strong Mayor ordinance in Sacramento. We need to pass a Clean Vote ordinance that keeps big money out of our city politics so we don’t become a cesspit of slippery, greed-based deal-making, nepotism, and patronage like our State Legislature (where mandatory ethics training is now instituted–too little, too late, in my view). No, we don’t need a strong mayor. But how about a Smart Mayor ordinance?
This is not to say that our mayor isn’t smart, but when the bulk of the State of the City speech goes to sports arena accomplishments, that’s simply not smart enough. The Smart Mayor ordinance will give the mayor his council vote and the right to use his office to advance worthy policy. He can promote the Kings all he wants. He can even wear their purple suits to meetings. But he will be required to work with the council to repair the parks and preserve the tree-lined neighborhoods (he lives in one) that make us, like Portland, a destination. He will be required to use his bully pulpit to hold developers to much, much higher environmental standards. He will have to put poverty, air quality and crime on the front burner and declaim relentlessly on these issues to TV and Bee reporters. The mayor has, because of office, an automatic public forum. That is power. To use that power for good is virtue. Maybe that’s the law we need, a Virtuous Mayor Ordinance.
Smart, virtuous politicians doing the right thing, uninfluenced by big donors? Not a chance, you say. Maybe. But it will be our fault if we don’t pay attention and thwart as many bad schemes as we can. We can start with rejecting Measure L. I know, we voted Strong Mayor down before. But it’s back. Think of voting it down again the way you think about your flu shot: something healthy you keep having to do. The flu comes back every year too. But we don’t have to catch it.