After six years, it appears Sacramento’s strong-mayor debate has been put to rest.
Mayor Kevin Johnson on Wednesday conceded the defeat of his strong-mayor ballot measure and said it was time for the city “to get back to work.” Measure L was soundly defeated by voters, trailing 57 percent to 43 percent with most of the ballots counted.
“Obviously I’m disappointed by the results, but I will absolutely respect the will of the voters to maintain the status quo,” Johnson told reporters at a City Hall press conference.
Johnson said he would seek to move the city forward in the current form of government. But with the signature political effort of his mayoral career over, it is unclear how long that work will last.
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Johnson declined Wednesday to commit to running for a third term after his current term expires in 2016, saying he had to “take a little time, step back and reflect.” Those close to him suggested he likely would not seek another four years in an office that Johnson contends has limitations.
“I think it will be difficult for him to put his name on the ballot again because he thought (Measure L) was integral to making Sacramento a better place,” said Steve Maviglio, a top political adviser of the mayor who worked on the Measure L campaign.
Councilman Steve Hansen, lead spokesman for the opposition campaign dubbed “Stop the Power Grab,” said the election results were “not a rejection of the mayor.”
“(The voters) value the mayor, they support his vision, but they think he and we can be successful with the rules as they are,” Hansen said. “The measure was soundly rejected because of its flaws. People believe our mayor is a strong leader in the current system and that he didn’t need Measure L in order to do the things he wanted.”
One part of Measure L may survive. Hansen said he would ask city staffers at Thursday’s City Council meeting to begin exploring the formation of an ethics commission that would enforce a new ethics code at City Hall. Measure L proposed an ethics committee, but critics argued it lacked proper enforcement powers.
Johnson sent a message to Hansen on Wednesday and said he had also reached out to other opponents of the measure to offer congratulations. With four new council members set to take office in the weeks ahead, Johnson now becomes the senior member of the City Council. He said he would move on from the strong-mayor issue.
“I’m happy to get back to work within the limitations of the position,” he said.
This was the fourth time Johnson had proposed increasing his office’s authority. A judge blocked one previous proposal from the ballot after ruling it was too far-reaching, and the City Council blocked the other attempts from reaching the ballot.
Measure L would have allowed the mayor to appoint and fire the city manager, essentially transferring the day-to-day decision making at City Hall from the city manager to the mayor’s office. Opponents argued it would place too much power in the hands of one elected official. Johnson said that message “scared people, it made it seem like something it wasn’t.”
Councilman Jay Schenirer, who has sided with Johnson on most issues since taking office in 2010 and supported Measure L, said he hopes the City Council will use the end of the strong-mayor debate to “think about, with the mayor’s leadership, what we want to accomplish in the next two years.” He said he expects Johnson to focus on two or three issues to champion, as he has in recent years with downtown development and a new sports arena. Johnson has recently expressed interest in proposing a universal preschool system in the city and developing the riverfronts.
“He’s shown he has leadership skills over the last few years, that’s not a question for me,” Schenirer said. “Now, it’s what do we want to do? I think we have a supermajority of council members who are more than willing and want to work together.”
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Johnson said he thinks Measure L failed in part because of recent success stories in the city. The mayor presided over a groundbreaking of a new downtown NBA arena just last week, the city budget had a surplus this year and the employment rate has fallen sharply.
“It’s hard to make this kind of change without a crisis,” he said of the strong-mayor plan.
Sacramento political consultant Andrew Acosta agreed.
“It’s hard to run around claiming victory for some of these projects that have gotten done and then tell people that we need to fix the system because it’s broken,” Acosta said.
The measure fared well in North Natomas, Del Paso Heights, Valley Hi and South Oak Park – and failed in nearly every place else, according to a review of election results.
East Sacramento residents defeated the measure by a vote of almost 2 to 1. So did residents in much of Land Park, South Land Park, Tahoe Park and Colonial Heights.
When the “Yes” vote won, it often won small. North Natomas voters favored the measure by a vote of 54 percent to 46 percent. The precinct around Carlin and Ehrhardt Avenue in Valley Hi gave the measure its strongest support, with two-thirds of the roughly 700 voters casting “yes” ballots.
The strongest sentiment against the measure came in the southern portion of the Elmhurst neighborhood, where 72 percent of residents cast votes against the measure.