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Sacramento Strong Mayor Initiative, June 2010

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A Sacramento Strong Mayor Initiative was slated to be on the June 8, 2010 ballot for City of Sacramento voters in Sacramento County.[1][2] On January 14, a Sacramento judge blocked the initiative from the ballot.[3]

Mayor Johnson's attempts to get the "Strong Mayor" measure on the November 2 ballot were thwarted in June 2010 when the city council voted, 7-2, against placing the measure on the fall ballot.[4][5]

In a "strong mayor" city, the elected mayor has the powers and authorities that otherwise be handed over to a hired city manager. Sacramento's mayor, Kevin Johnson, strongly supports the initiative. When the signatures were turned in, Johnson said, "This is an overwhelming show of support to change Sacramento's business-as-usual government. I cannot imagine that the council will deny the will of more than 50,000 voters to decide whether we should modernize our city's government like nearly every other major city in our state has."[6]

If a Strong Mayor proposal ever successfully navigates the hurdles to ballot access, and if voters approve it, it will give Sacramento's mayor "powers beyond any city executive in California." The mayor would be the sole boss of the city's hired city manager. The city manager under the current system reports to the entire city council.[7]

In a "weak mayor" city, by contrast to a "strong mayor" city, the mayor's powers are similar to those of any member of the city council.


Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson


  • Mayor Kevin Johnson was the measure's leading proponent.
  • The Sacramento Metro Chamber endorsed the Strong Mayor Initiative. In a news release announcing the endorsement in December 2009, Linda Cutler, chairwoman of the Metro Chamber board, said, "“The city of Sacramento deserves a governing structure that is both effective and accountable."[8]
  • The Sacramento Police Officers Association.[9]

Arguments in favor

Arguments made by supporters of the Strong Mayor Initiative include:

  • Mayor Johnson: "If you have to do everything by committee, it gets bogged down and you miss a ton of opportunities."[10]
  • The mayor would have a freer hand to deal with the city's current financial problems, according to supporters. Johnson wanted the city to hire an outside auditor in 2009. The city council rejected the idea. Under a strong mayor system, the mayor would have the unilateral authority to order the city manager to hire an outside auditor.[10]
  • Johnson wants to transform Sacramento's old rail yard into a commercial and residential hub and build a new basketball arena to replace the Sacramento Kings' current arena. He thinks this will be easier to accomplish under a strong mayor system.[10]
  • Mayor Johnson: "We have a city right now where we all kind of say, 'Everybody's in charge.' It really means no one is in charge."[9]


SAVE Sacramento logo


  • The group "SAVE Sacramento" is organized to defeat the measure.
  • The Sacramento Central Labor Council opposes it.[9]

Reasons to oppose

Reasons giving for opposition include:

  • Powerful mayors have less accountability than city managers.
  • Kevin McCarty, a member of the Sacramento City Council, says that if the mayor is given the power to appoint department heads, cronyism could develop. McCarty says the strong-mayor initiative would make Johnson "the Emperor of Sacramento."[10]
  • "80 top-level police and administrators [would be] subject to the hiring and firing whims of the mayor."[9]

Possible legal flaw

City Attorney Eileen Teichert has said that the proposal is legally flawed because it does not spell out a mechanism for electing a ninth city council member to replace the mayor on the council. She said that Sacramento's City Council might respond to this flaw by voting to put a companion measure on the same ballot that does spell out the procedure for electing the new member.

If the Sacramento City Council declines to put the companion measure on the ballot, those supporting the Strong Mayor Initiative could pay to collect signatures to qualify such a measure for the ballot, but it may be too late for that measure to qualify it for the ballot on which the Strong Mayor Initiative will appear. If the Strong Mayor Initiative alone is on the June 2010 ballot and is approved, a judge could conceivably nullify it because of its failure to address the issue of the ninth city council member.

Path to the ballot

52,062 signatures were collected by supporters of the initiative in order to qualify it for the ballot.[6]

Lawsuit to remove

On Thursday, January 14, Sacramento Superior Court judge Loren McMaster said he intends to remove the initiative from the ballot. McMaster was responding to a lawsuit filed on December 1, 2009 by Bill Camp, Secretary of the Sacramento Central Labor Council.[11][7]

The legal argument given for removing the initiative from the ballot is that the Strong Mayor Initiative is a “revision” of the city charter, not an amendment, and that according to the laws governing city ballot measures in California, only amendments can be petitioned onto the ballot. Judge McMaster wrote, "The proposed initiative process (is) a revision to the city charter and, as such, is not properly placed on the ballot for a vote of the people."[11]

Section 3 of Article XI of the California Constitution lays out the rules governing city and county charters.

Tim Hodson of the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State said the courts in California rarely remove ballot measures from the ballot before a vote: "They do so only when, in the court’s opinion, it is clear a measure is so obviously unconstitutional that there can be no debate about it, and therefore putting it on the ballot would be a waste of money."[12]

The Sacramento Sierra Building Trades Council and Sacramento County Democratic Party helped defray the costs of Camp's lawsuit. "Heavyweight political lawyer Lance Olson" is the lead attorney for plaintiff Camp.[13][14]

Council referral?

After the initiative was removed from the ballot, Mayor Johnson announced on February 8 that he is asking the city council to refer a similar measure to the June ballot.

The City Council would have to vote to put the measure on the June ballot no later than February 23.[5]

Controversy over loan

Mayor Kevin Johnson made a $25,000 loan to Sacramentans for Accountable Government, the official campaign committee promoting the "Strong Mayor" initiative.[15] He later said he was converting the loan to a gift to avoid a possible conflict-of-interest in his votes on the city council regarding a companion ballot measures to fix the measure's legal flaw.

"Strong Mayor" cities

Sixty percent of cities 250,000 or more residents have a strong-mayor system. In a strong mayor system, the mayor proposes budgets, appoints department heads and can issue orders without council approval.[10]

External links