Want a stronger California city? Don’t make your mayor more powerful. Make your city council bigger. 

Mayors Sam Liccardo of San Jose and Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento are seeking to become “strong mayors”—with broad executive authority over department heads, budgets and council legislation.   

“Strong mayors” are rare in California. More typically, California cities are run by appointed city managers, and mayors are just one member of our small, weak city councils.

The pandemic and policing controversies have added urgency to the debate. Liccardo and Steinberg complain that while the public looks to them for action in the current crises, they lack the authority to do anything themselves. So Liccardo is pursuing a “strong mayor” charter reform for San Jose, and Steinberg is backing a “strong mayor” measure on Sacramento’s November ballot.

Both men would be wise to drop the idea, and look instead at their council. And not just because the “strong mayor” idea has caused political conflict at a time when their cities, and the whole state, desperately need unity. The larger problem is that creating a single powerful leader won’t make California cities any stronger. 

Our cities’ lack of power is a function of our state’s constitution, which centralizes power in the state government and severely limits the most important local power—the power to raise taxes. Voters imposed this weak local system through Proposition 13 and related measures because they don’t trust their local officials. 

How to build trust and convince voters to change the system? By making local governments more responsive and representative. But local governments can’t be representative, because our tiny city councils have so few representatives, typically only 5 or 7.

San Jose, with one million-plus people, has just 11 council members. Sacramento has nine for 500,000, and San Diego nine for its 1.4 million-plus residents. Then there’s L.A., with just 15 council members for more than four million people. Such minimal representation means that there are simply too few elected positions to reflect the kaleidoscopic diversity and myriad ideas of California and its communities. 

The globe’s greatest cities have large, energetic city councils or parliaments. The council in Madrid, Spain, with 57 members, might be the world’s most innovative, having created an online “Decide Madrid” citizen platform that has been adopted by more than 100 cities. 

Vienna, a pioneer in using local democracy to build housing and modern development, has 100 representatives in its local parliament. Paris has 163, the great city of Tokyo has 127, and Seoul, a leader in citizen engagement and participation, has 110. Some large and creative cities guarantee more representation by dividing themselves up into boroughs; Mexico City, for example, has 16 separate municipalities.

If California cities wanted to follow suit right now, they’d have to find many more candidates for office. If L.A. had a city council where each member represented 25,000 people—a good number to make our politicians truly representative of their neighborhoods—the body would have 160 members, the same as in Berlin, Germany. By the same formula, San Jose would have 41 councilmembers, and Sacramento 21. 

But it wouldn’t be as hard to identify new local politicians as one might think, especially now. The thousands of people marching on our streets are the sort of civic-minded folks we need more of in local office. 

Mayors Liccardo and Steinberg also might find candidates for expanded city councils in San Jose and Sacramento among the many activists and inside the many nonprofits and labor unions opposing their “strong mayor” plans.

Tellingly, the debates over “strong mayor” in those two cities surfaced complaints about a lack of representation. 

In Sacramento, Steinberg modified his original plan in response to community and political opposition. He also paired his November “strong mayor” measure with provisions that are supposed to ensure more equity and representation in the development of city policy.

In San Jose, Liccardo backed off plans for a “strong mayor” ballot measure this November in response to objections from neighborhood groups, ethnic organizations, and Latino members of the city council. Liccardo instead promised an inclusive charter revision process, with a vote on a broad package of reforms in 2022.

“In recent weeks, several organizations have urged that we slow the process of charter reforms designed to lead to a more effective, accountable, and representative government,” Liccardo wrote in a memo announcing the delay. He added: “At the end of the day, our city belongs to its residents.”

It does. Which is why more residents should be in office. With more of our neighbors campaigning for council, Californians would be more likely to vote in our local elections.

California mayors might also find that, with more colleagues and a more engaged citizenry behind them, they finally would have more power.


Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.