By Kevin Duggan
The future of local government professional management in Sacramento, California, did not look good last summer. The city’s well-known mayor, Kevin Johnson, rode positive public opinion for his efforts to preserve Sacramento’s professional basketball team—he being a former NBA player himself—and made a full-court press to change the form of government from council-manager to mayor-council or “strong mayor.”
Mayor Johnson had raised several hundred thousand dollars to fund this campaign and had secured a variety of influential endorsements, including one from the dominant daily newspaper in Sacramento. The opposition had just begun to get organized, but had challenges initially raising enough seed funding to determine whether an opposition campaign had any chance of success and would be worth mounting.
Since he had first been elected in 2008, Mayor Johnson had made four attempts to change the city’s form of government. The first three had failed to make it on the ballot for a variety of reasons, including the opposition of a majority of the city council.
The November 2012 election changed the composition of the council, however, and provided the mayor with a majority willing to place the proposed charter change on the ballot. The Sacramento City Council voted in late 2013 to place Measure L, the strong-mayor charter change, on the ballot for the November 2014 election. The stage was set for a showdown over the city’s form of government.
Time for a New Strategy
In an attempt to reduce opposition to the proposal from a community that had been well served by the council-manager form of government, the proposed new charter under Measure L would have retained a position with the title of city manager. The fundamental authority and responsibilities of the city’s day-to-day executive management, however, would have been transferred to the mayor.
A number of local supporters of professional local government management had worked diligently since the initial proposal in 2008 to retain the council-manager form.
These included local government professionals, many of whom are ICMA members; former councilmembers and mayors; neighborhood associations; academics; and labor organizations.
Convincing previous city councils not to place strong-mayor proposals on the ballot had been quite a different task than countering a well-funded and well-organized campaign once a majority of the new city council placed the matter on the ballot. The proponents of the change used the long pre-election lead time to aggressively fundraise and seek endorsements. They generated more than $800,000 and obtained a wide range of endorsements in support of Measure L.
In light of this new and different type of challenge, supporters of the council-manager retention had to develop a new strategy. Early on, it became clear that it was essential to have representation from the local political leadership as part of the opposition effort.
Some former mayors and councilmembers were active in the opposition campaign, but it was current councilmember Steve Hansen who became the face of the campaign.
While having served only two years on the Sacramento City Council, Hansen decided to join the challenge to Measure L, even though the proposed change was endorsed by a majority of his colleagues. He was also willing to take the political risk of alienating the mayor, who soon could have substantially greater power.
ICMA Renders Assistance
Over the past several years, ICMA had monitored the efforts to abandon the council-manager form in Sacramento, and during the Measure L campaign, members in and around the area were instrumental in keeping the organization informed of developments regarding the issue.
Once the proposal was placed on the ballot, ICMA communicated its ability to assist local supporters of the council-manager form with information and potential financial assistance.
The opponents of the proposed change formed Citizens for a Fair Sacramento, and they clearly understood the magnitude of the challenge that they faced.
First, they needed to measure current public opinion regarding the proposal and what would be the most important messages to emphasize during their campaign. They also faced reluctance from donors to contribute to the opposition without some sense of whether or not the measure could realistically be defeated.
Supporters of the measure based their campaign on the premise that the strong-mayor form would make city government more “modern and contemporary” and would make it clear to the community who was in charge. Opponents portrayed the effort as leaving the city more vulnerable to special interests while reducing the role and authority of the city council as a whole.
They also emphasized that the current form of government had served Sacramento effectively for many years.
Citizens for a Fair Sacramento requested that ICMA’s Fund for Professional Management provide funding to undertake a public opinion poll to determine the chances for mounting a successful effort. ICMA’s Fund provided this assistance. The California City Management Foundation (CCMF) supplemented ICMA’s contribution with its funds assisting with voter education.
With ICMA’s funds, the campaign was able to obtain the services of a professional polling firm, and poll results demonstrated that there was strong early support for maintaining the council-manager form in Sacramento.
This data provided the encouragement that council-manager proponents needed to undertake an aggressive Measure L opposition campaign, while also providing support for obtaining additional financial assistance from local sources that may have otherwise been reluctant to support what could have been perceived as a doomed effort.
Councilmember Hansen made it clear that without that initial financial support from ICMA, it is unlikely that a successful effort to retain the council-manager form of government would have been possible. The existence of the Fund for Professional Management was fundamental to providing the early financial support that proved pivotal to the campaign’s outcome.
Going to the Grass Roots
Citizens for a Fair Sacramento successfully solicited nearly $200,000 in contributions to support an opposition campaign; however, supporters of Measure L raised in excess of $800,000. It was clear from the start that the opposition could not compete with Mayor Johnson and his supporters from a fundraising perspective.
It also became clear that mounting a grass-roots effort on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis would be critical if the opposition were to have any chance for success. The opposition campaign also secured the advice and assistance of professional campaign advisers in crafting its strategy. The campaign also benefited from the memorable, clever (and brief) slogan “L No!”.
While the mayor lined up a formidable array of supporters and contributors, including the development community, portions of the local business community including the chamber of commerce, and such nationally known acquaintances as former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the opposition relied on allies that included the League of Women Voters and neighborhood associations.
Supporters of the council-manager form deployed a number of strategies ranging from a well-designed website to an impressive deployment of yard signs. They also created a “speakers bureau” of individuals who were prepared to debate the measure during a large number of forums that were held throughout the city.
In addition to providing initial financial support and form-of-government information, ICMA disseminated a position statement discussing the proposed measure, which was authored by California ICMA members Pat Martel (ICMA president elect), Rod Gould (ICMA Executive Board member), Bill Edgar (former Sacramento city manager), and Ted Gaebler (ICMA senior adviser).
The statement emphasized the importance of having both strong political leadership, as well as strong professional management to ensure Sacramento’s long-term success. Despite the formidable odds against the opposition to the strong-mayor proposal, Sacramento voters soundly defeated Measure L by a margin of 57 percent to 43 percent.
Residents demonstrated their understanding of and appreciation for the council-manager form and professional management of the city’s day-to-day service delivery. They saw beyond the Measure L proponents’ campaign rhetoric and media messages and demonstrated their belief that council-manager government will continue to serve them well.
A History of Success
One factor that bolstered the opposition campaign was Sacramento’s history of success under the council-manager form. Current City Manager John Shirey, as well as previous managers, had worked effectively with the community’s elected leadership for decades to provide successful local government to the city.
The argument that there was no reason to change from a successful system was an important asset for supporters of the plan. When asked why he was willing to take on the effort to oppose the strong-mayor proposal given the political risk involved and the common belief that the effort to prevent the change would not be successful, Hansen stated that it was based on his personal conviction of what was best for Sacramento residents, along with his belief that the council-manager form of government was the best alternative for efficient, effective, and ethical governance for his community.
In January 2015, the Cal-ICMA Board formally recognized Councilmember Steve Hansen for his efforts on behalf of good government in Sacramento and the local government management profession. The board also recognized Professor Chet Newland, Sacramento, California, and Murray Levison, administrative officer, who are longtime supporters of preserving the form in Sacramento.
Here is a summary of lessons learned in the campaign to retain the council-manager form of government in Sacramento:
- A grass-roots effort to defend professional local government management can overcome a concerted and well-financed assault, and the side that can afford the most advertising and media time will not always prevail.
- Depending on the local environment, engaging professional political consulting assistance, including polling, may be critical to the success of a campaign to retain a council-manager form of government.
- Initial funding, especially to obtain early voter opinion data, can be fundamental to undertaking a successful campaign.
- While ICMA cannot directly undertake a council-manager retention or adoption campaign without the involvement of a local group of supporters, timely and strategic support from ICMA and the Fund for Professional Management can be critical to a campaign’s success.
- The presence of local political leaders who understand and support the concept of professional local government management greatly enhances the potential for a campaign’s success.
- Getting the message across through existing community groups and organizations such as neighborhood associations can be extremely effective.
- Building a coalition of individuals and organizations who understand and value the council-manager form is critical to successfully defending the plan.