Measure L, which would abandon Sacramento’s current council-manager structure in favor of the mayor-council system, will not strengthen the city’s government. Instead it would weaken the policy-making and representative role of the elected governing body as a whole and diminish the role of professional management while strengthening the powers of a single individual—the mayor.
It is instructive to borrow a lesson from the corporate world regarding governance. We have seen how too much power concentrated in too few individuals, poor incentive structures, and weak oversight can be disastrous. Many of the principles encompassed in the Public Company Accounting Reform and Investor Protection Act, a.k.a., Sarbanes-Oxley—which include independent directors, a chairperson who is not the CEO, a strong commitment to the oversight role of the board, transparency of action, and a strong commitment to ethics—are at the core of the council-manager form of government.
Measure L would transfer the authorities currently held by the city manager, who is appointed by the entire council, to the mayor, who would have sole responsibility for the oversight of much of the city’s day-to-day operations, including the hiring and firing of the city manager. Proponents of the change claim that the move to the mayor-council form would “give [Sacramento] the resources needed to take it to the next level.” Yet, the numbers argue against such a move.
Today council-manager government is used by more municipalities in the U.S. than any other form. Of the 7,555 jurisdictions with known forms of government and populations of 2,500 or more, 49 percent (N = 3,677) operate under this form. Today more than 105 million people in the U.S. live in municipalities that operate under the council-manager form.
The council-manager form is also flexible enough to meet the needs of larger communities with populations of 500,000 or more, including Phoenix, Arizona (1.6 million); San José, California (1 million); San Antonio (1.39 million), Dallas (1.24 million), Austin (843,000), Fort Worth (792, 700), and El Paso (730,000) Texas; and Charlotte, North Carolina (793,000).
Nearly every list measuring business friendliness and quality of life are dominated by council manager cities. In “Smarter, Faster, Cheaper,” for example, IBM’s David Edwards examined publicly available data from the largest 100 U.S. cities. Edwards’s findings suggest that the single factor that determines how efficiently a city deploys resources is management, defined as the ability of government leaders to make strategic and operational decisions about “what services will be provided to which citizens” at what level and how. Edwards learned that communities with council manager forms of government are nearly 10 percent more efficient than those with strong mayoral forms of government. This finding validates the assumption that placing executive authority in a professional, nonpartisan manager leads to more efficiently managed communities.
Under the council-manager form, the mayor serves as the political leader and “face” of the community. Political power and policy making is concentrated within the entire governing body, including the mayor. A highly trained, nonpartisan, experienced professional manages the city’s day-to-day operations. The manager’s appointment should be based on his or her professional experience, managerial qualifications, and education; political affiliation should have no influence on the appointment.
Sacramento needs both the strong political leadership of the elected mayor and council and the effective, day-to-day management of a strong city manager. To adopt Measure L and strengthen the mayor’s position at the expense of the council and professional management only undermines the effort to prepare the city for future success.