The future of Sacramento, California, remains strong as voters rejected the mayor’s attempt to increase his power through a referendum (Measure A) on the November 3, 2020, ballot. The primary purpose of Measure A was to change the form of government in Sacramento from council-manager to the mayor-council form, commonly referred to as “strong mayor.” This was the second time in the past six years that a sitting mayor has attempted to change the form of government, and the second time the measure was soundly defeated. After all votes were counted, the measure fell 57% to 43%; the same vote count as in 2014.
Despite significant political and financial capital put into the measure by the mayor and his allies, the will of the people was clear that they do not wish to increase the power of the mayor. Rather, they want the mayor, council, and city manager to work together in the best interest of residents and reduce political influence in the administration of government. That was the message conveyed by those spearheading the opposition.
Key ally groups included members of the city council and former mayor Heather Fargo, the Neighborhoods Against Strong Mayor campaign committee, the Sacramento Area Fire Fighters Local 522, the League of Women Voters, and the Black Lives Matter – Sacramento Chapter. The need for stability in local government and the opportunity for community members and others to speak directly to the council as they establish policy was essential to the argument in support of the council-manager form of government. Most important, was the resounding desire to reduce political influence on the administration of government. As articulated in a letter by councilmembers Jeff Harris (District 3) and Larry Carr (District 8), “Our current system, which has served Sacramento for 99 years, must be maintained so we can balance the city’s immediate and long-term interests without the vagaries of political whims.”
ICMA served the city of Sacramento in advocating to retain professional local government management. With additional support from the California City Management Foundation, we were able to support local efforts to inform the community about the differences between the two forms of government. Special acknowledgement and thanks are due to ICMA member John Shirey, who helped organize and support local grassroots efforts.
Change Begins at the Local Level
The stronger our local governments are, the stronger our nation becomes. And if this past year is any indication, challenges to the council-manager form of government and to the city/county management profession across the nation are likely to increase. Similarly, opportunities to advance the council-manager form to replace ineffective models of governance will expand as communities seek ways to strengthen their local government. As challenges and opportunities arise, know that ICMA is here to serve you.
Saratoga Springs, New York
On election day in New York, the city of Saratoga Springs, for the fourth time in 14 years, made another strong push to change its longstanding commissioner form of government. Yet, after all the votes were tallied, the ballot measure came up short by 1,138 votes. ICMA worked with Common Sense Saratoga, the local grassroots effort to reform the charter, providing funding, informational material, and content for the campaign for a council-manager form.
Analyzing why a campaign measure fails is as important as understanding why it succeeds. If we are to build trust and confidence in our local government institutions and staff, we must be cognizant of the perceived problems that residents express in the council-manager form. Most notably in Saratoga Springs, there were three key arguments that opponents to the measure espoused.
First, that electing councilmembers by ward under the proposed plan would create divisions among neighborhood communities and lead to council decisions that were not in the best interest of the city overall. Second, there was concern that an outsider hired as city manager could not be as effective as the current elected commissioners and their appointed full-time deputy commissioners, who are from the city and understand the culture and needs of the citizenry. Finally, opponents feared that overhauling government and creating a new system of governmental administration would be too costly for taxpayers and posed too great a risk during these current times of uncertainty.
Another key factor in the final vote was the fact that the local Democratic and Republican parties took opposing positions on the ballot measure, creating a competing partisan divide that overshadowed the arguments for and against it. As with most issues drawn along political lines, party loyalty can often take precedence for many voters. As a result of all these factors, Saratoga Springs remains a commission form of government.
With every form of government change initiative there are lessons learned that we can bring forward to our next endeavor. What we learned from this effort, and one that managers model every day, is to make certain that residents see the city/county manager position as an integral and active part of the community. We must strengthen our resolve to assure all residents, regardless of the particular neighborhoods in which they reside, receive fair and equitable treatment through the varied array of programs and services the community offers. And finally, city/county managers must be visible in the administration of government while communicating to the public policy decisions made by the council and how they will be implemented.
Future of Professional Management Fund
Change at the local level is most likely to occur in times of civil unrest. As we endure a pandemic, an economic crisis, and a change of administration at the federal level, there will be challenges to the status quo in the administration of government at the local level across the nation. ICMA stands ready to support those striving to improve government at the local level. Our efforts rely on the generous support of our members through the Future of Professional Management Fund. If you are willing to help our ongoing efforts to promote the council-manager form of government and the value of professional management in local government, consider contributing today.