Mayor Darrell Steinberg tours Old Sacramento on March 9. He wants to reenergize it, as well as redevelop the riverfront. Renée C. Byer
Mayor Darrell Steinberg tours Old Sacramento on March 9. He wants to reenergize it, as well as redevelop the riverfront. Renée C. Byer

Foon Rhee

Associate editor, editorial writer and Viewpoints editor

Foon Rhee

After 100 days, so far, so good for Steinberg

By Foon Rhee

March 24, 2017 03:00 PM

Mayor Darrell Steinberg passed his 100th day in office on Thursday with little drama or fanfare. That’s a good thing for the people of Sacramento.

It’s what happens with competent government and leadership, and we shouldn’t take it for granted. Just look at the daily circus that is the Trump administration, counting down to its 100th day on April 29.

While it’s way too early to declare Steinberg a success, it’s so far, so good. He put out a priority list for his first weeks – including transparency, youth services and homelessness – and he’s made some progress on nearly all the items.

He’s off to a great start, if he does say so himself. “I’m doing the job exactly as advertised,” Steinberg said.

But he’s found the job, itself, somewhat different than he expected. While as challenging and intense as his days in the Legislature, he says that being mayor is a more public position. On Thursday, he had to express the city’s shock and sorrow over the slayings of four people in South Land Park.

He’s also learning that his post is about advancing causes without the certainty of a bill being signed into law. “How to measure results in this job I’m still figuring out,” he says.

It’s already clear he’s doing the job differently than his predecessor. For all the excitement that Kevin Johnson brought to the mayor’s office, follow-through was not his strength.

So it was Steinberg who on Tuesday pushed across the finish line a two-year effort for a stronger ethics code and sunshine ordinance. At the same meeting, he and the City Council sent an important message on transparency by unanimously upholding a new policy that requires the police department to release body camera and dash-cam video of officer-involved shootings within 30 days.

Johnson was a big picture guy, not so much into policy details. Steinberg is a policy wonk, and proud of it. He hasn’t been afraid to step into the quagmire of homelessness, and has been able to move the needle a bit by working with Sacramento County.

As Johnson did by keeping the Kings in town, Steinberg played negotiator for a pro sports franchise, on a smaller scale. Last month, he spent 12 hours mediating an ownership dispute that threatened Republic FC’s bid for a Major League Soccer franchise. “It’s the part of the job I enjoy the most,” he said.

Using the political skills he honed as leader of the state Senate from 2008 to 2014, he is building consensus on the council, which is not having the split votes and rancor that plagued Johnson’s first term.

And while Johnson was obsessed with obtaining “strong mayor” powers, Steinberg has steered clear of the contentious issue while proving that the mayor can get a lot done without changing the city charter.

But bigger challenges await Steinberg:

▪ Sacramento Convention Center: He owns the decision on expansion since the council delayed it at his request, and he is leading a “stakeholder” group that held its last scheduled meeting Thursday. The mayor says it’s possible to do an adequate expansion without using all $170 million set aside, leaving money to invest in amenities that would draw more visitors to fill hotel rooms.

Steinberg also wants to re-energize Old Sacramento and the riverfront, the subject of a workshop hosted Friday by the local chapter of the Urban Land Institute.

▪ New police chief: Steinberg backed Howard Chan as the permanent city manager. Now Chan gets to choose the city’s next police chief, as well as a new economic development director. Steinberg says with his collaborative relationship with Chan, he’ll get a say. That means he will take some responsibility for these key hires, whether they turn out well or not.

▪ Recreational marijuana: The city must figure out how to reap tax revenue without hurting neighborhoods. Starting in April, it plans to accept permit applications for about 200 commercial grows.

▪ Budget: While the economy is doing better, the city is facing future deficits. Steinberg calls for strategic investments in key areas, not adding large ongoing programs. So he backed spending $5 million in one-time money on the homeless, and nearly $600,000 to expand youth programs.

Steinberg is holding budget town halls with each district council member, which started Thursday. He’s also asked Councilman Jay Schenirer to lead a broader look at the city’s financial needs. It includes renewing the Measure U half-cent sales tax that brings in $40 million a year for public safety and other basic services that expires in March 2019, but also at the city’s needs in housing, transportation and even the arts.

▪ Pensions: The longer-term financial picture includes the city’s bill for pensions and retiree health care. With CalPERS lowering its expected investment returns, the city is projecting additional payments of $3.2 million in 2018-19, rising to $29.4 million in 2022-23.

Steinberg says he’s “very concerned,” but he and the council did themselves no favor by approving nearly $1.4 million in bonuses to police officers before negotiations on a new union contract even start. It may have been justified to retain and recruit officers, but it is sure to complicate contract talk next year with city firefighters.

▪ Federal cuts: The city’s budget outlook could get even bleaker depending on federal budget cuts, or if the White House follows through on threats to penalize Sacramento and other “sanctuary” cities that protect undocumented immigrants. Steinberg says while he’s worried about what Trump and the Republican Congress might do, the city can’t overreact.

That’s why the city is moving ahead on its homeless initiative despite a $2.5 million federal cut for housing vouchers and on a tax district for a proposed streetcar car line even though the president’s proposed budget would slash transit funding, he said.

“We just have to stay our course,” Steinberg says. “Let’s define our own destiny.”

He’s right. With the daily headlines out of Washington, D.C., it’s easy to forget that our daily lives depend far more on decisions made by local officials like Steinberg. We can be far more confident in his leadership than the man in the Oval Office.

Foon Rhee: 916-321-1913, @foonrhee