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Dan Walters: Our cities can be governance leaders, but only with strong mayors

Sacramento Bee

By Dan Walters

October 11, 2002

As California voters enacted property tax-cutting Proposition 13 nearly a quarter-century ago, they unknowingly shifted much of the responsibility for making policy and financing public facilities and services from locally elected city, county and school officials to the governor and the Legislature.

Ironically -- and unfortunately -- that shift more or less coincided with some multifaceted changes in the structure and orientation of state-level politicians. And the result has been a form of political sclerosis; while more of the burden to make and finance policy decisions resides in the Capitol, its occupants are increasingly unwilling or unable to act. The recently concluded legislative session demonstrated anew the effects of the disease, as the governor and the Legislature concentrated on doing election-year favors for narrow political constituencies and failed to enact a rational state budget.

Counties and school districts, which are utterly dependent on Sacramento for their financial underpinnings, have been infected by the same illness. Each year, county and school officials await their financial fate as the Legislature and the governor conduct their budget ballet, leaving the locals unable to make and execute long-range plans themselves.

There has been one partial exception to California's crisis of governance: city governments. With relatively little of their money flowing from the state, with little responsibility for state-mandated programs, and with their financial and organizational flexibility, cities have become the state's healthiest and most innovative governmental entities. That, in turn, has raised the public profiles of mayors, particularly those of major cities.

Whether it's Richard Riordan in Los Angeles, Willie Brown in San Francisco or Jerry Brown in Oakland, mayors have been playing starring political roles of late, not only managing the day-to-day affairs of their cities but often moving outside their boundaries to dabble in school reform and regional issues. Politicians of all ideological stripes now see the much-enhanced mayoralties as stepping stones.

Growing cities, however, sooner or later face a question: When should the city manager form of city government be scrapped in favor of a full-time mayor who really runs things and is held directly accountable for what does and does not happen in his community? One of Riordan's accomplishments as mayor of Los Angeles was to overhaul the city charter and make the mayor a bigger player. Jerry Brown did much the same thing in Oakland.

Sacramento is now facing the question, or at least partially facing it, in the form of a November ballot measure that, if enacted, would create a commission to provide its mayor with a full-time salary, probably about $100,000 a year, and also set higher pay for City Council members.

Advocates of the measure say that with about 400,000 people, Sacramento is more than big enough to justify a full-time mayor at its head, and they are probably right. But Measure S has a huge flaw, and if it's enacted, Sacramento could wind up with a city government as dysfunctional as the state government, for roughly the same reasons.

A major cause of state government's dysfunction is that its lines of authority and accountability are so blurred that everyone can pass the buck -- and does with depressing frequency. Measure S would create a full-time mayoralty for Sacramento but would also leave its city manager, chosen by and answerable to only the City Council, in place. And the city manager would retain his or her power to select top department heads and tell them what to do. So who would really be running things? And who would be accountable when things turn sour?

A telling example of what could lie ahead surfaced this week in The Sacramento Bee. The Bee discovered that a financial mess at the city-owned Haggin Oaks Golf Complex was worse than previously revealed, and that City Manager Bob Thomas hadn't even told Mayor Heather Fargo and City Council members about the new problems.

Sacramento is probably big enough to justify a full-time mayor -- but one who is really in charge, not merely a well-paid figurehead. Having dual heads of government could be a huge blunder.


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Speaker's Commission on State/Local Government Finance
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