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Davis, California

Monday, September 20, 2021

Sacramento mayor’s initiative leads to lawsuit

A lawsuit filed Dec. 1, 2009 said Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson’s strong-mayor proposal should be taken off the June 2010 ballot because it violates the state constitution.

Johnson’s initiative would strengthen the mayor’s office by giving him the ability to hire and fire high-ranking city officials and hundreds of other city workers, propose the city’s budget and have veto power. The Sacramento City Council would take on the role of a legislative body with final say over the city budget and mayoral appointments, as well as some veto override powers.

The lawsuit was filed by the executive secretary of the Sacramento Central Labor Council, Bill Camp. It states city charter revisions can only be proposed to voters by a governing body such as a city council or elected charter commission – not through the initiative process.

The strong-mayor initiative was drafted by Johnson’s personal attorney Thomas Hiltachk. It was placed on the ballot after supporters gathered enough verified signatures: 52,062 total.

Camp is opposed to the method in which it was put on the ballot.

“A bunch of rich people can’t just pay people to get signatures to get something on the ballot,” Camp said. “If you want to redistribute power, you have to go through a public process, with public hearings and proposals. This is not an amendment; it’s a wholesale reorganization of the power structure.”

Matt Kelly is executive secretary of the Sacramento-Sierra Building and Construction Trades Council and also chairman of Support Accountability, Voice and Ethics in Sacramento (SAVE Sacramento), an opposition group to the initiative. Kelly believes the initiative is unnecessary.

“This initiative would change the structure of government in Sacramento,” Kelly said. “There’s nothing that indicates that there needs to be a change in this structure of government, maybe a change in leadership, but not in government structure.”

Anna Molander, chair of Sacramento Democrats and a leader in SAVE, believes the initiative is dangerous because it would consolidate decisions to one person. She also feels the city should not risk a fundamental change, and this initiative is far different from any other strong-mayor proposals in California and nearby states.

Opponents of the initiative disagree with the actual content of the proposal.

“This would create a serious problem for Sacramento voters because it gives the mayor authority to hire and fire 500 to 600 people including police captains, those who work at the UC Davis medical center and others,” Camp said. “City Council has to approve hiring, but not firing, so the mayor can replace those in the civil service. People are troubled by this huge change in culture.”

Camp also believes Johnson’s proposal would make the government more dysfunctional and put a minority in power.

“On a state level, it doesn’t work having a two-thirds approval vote to veto something and locally this won’t work as well,” Camp said. “Saying the mayor can veto any legislation could cause this same problem in Sacramento.”

Keith Aoki, a professor who teaches local governmental law at UC Davis’ School of Law, told The Sacramento Bee he was unaware of any local initiatives that have been deemed unconstitutional and removed from a ballot in California.

“It is far from clear if the proposal is a revision,” Aoki said. “I could see far more radical redesigns of municipal government than what Kevin Johnson proposes.”

Johnson said the measure was written legally and is confident it will overcome the lawsuit.

“I think this is another example of the opponents of change doing everything they can to resist the will of the voters,” Johnson told Capital Public Radio.

Tim Hodson of the Sacramento State’s Center for California Studies said it is very rare for a California court to kick a measure off the ballot before an election.

“They do so only when, in the court’s opinion, it is clear a measure is so obviously unconstitutional that there can be no debate about it, and therefore putting it on the ballot would be a waste of money,” Hodson told Capital Public Radio. “Courts prefer to weigh in after the voters do.”

ANGELA SWARTZ can be reached city@theaggie.org.

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