SACRAMENTO – The Sacramento City Council voted Tuesday night 6-3 in favor of placing a “strong mayor” proposal on the ballot for the Nov. 3 general election.

Councilmembers Angelique Ashby, Steven Hansen, Jay Schenirer, Eric Guerra, Rick Jennings, and Mayor Darrell Steinberg voted yes to move the initiative forward. Councilmembers Jeff Harris, Allen Warren, and Larry Carr opposed the measure during the five-hour City Council meeting.

The initiative, a measure that could change the city’s current “council-manager” form of government to a “mayor-council” structure, will now be in the hands of the voters.

If the proposal is passed by the majority of the city’s voters, it revises the Sacramento City Charter — the voter-approved constitution that establishes the framework for the city government. It will place stronger executive power in the hands of the mayor, allowing him to make some decisions without the input of the City Council or City Manager.

Bypassing the first obstacle, Steinberg clearly expressed a sense of confidence.

“So, let’s take this to the voters, let’s have a great debate, and let’s not be angry at each other,” Steinberg said following hours of community input during the virtual city council meeting. “Let’s all come from a place where we know, respect and we all love our city. We all have a different idea of how we want to make this city better and that’s what this is all about.”

But the mayor’s certain self-assuredness may be challenged soon. The road to becoming a “strong” chief executive of the city is still bumpy. Along the way, he still has to convince Sacramento’s Black community, which makes up about 14 percent of the city’s residents, to support the measure.

African Americans in Sacramento have mixed feelings about the ballot measure, according to several influential civic and religious leaders in the city.

For most of the past week, leading up to the vote, Steinberg was on the hot seat. He participated in two of three Zoom conference meetings hosted and streamed by the local Sacramento Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

The town hall meetings with Steinberg gave him a chance to persuade the participants on the call, and Blacks across the city, that the strong mayor proposal, titled the “Mayoral Accountability and Community Equity Act,” is the right move for residents.

Black supporters of the proposal, and those against it, voiced their opinions about the mayor of Sacramento having expanded powers, including the ability to hire and fire the city manager — who currently oversees Sacramento’s budget and financial affairs.

Betty Williams, president of the local NAACP, and members of her staff, say tensions with the mayor that have been low boiling for a while now heated up during the virtual conference calls.

It became apparent, they told The OBSERVER, that Steinberg has some serious concerns with the Black community even as he praised his relationships with his African American constituents.

“We do have trust issues, not just NAACP, but a number of individuals in the Black community, organizations, and faith-based, have trust issues with him,” Ms. Williams told The OBSERVER by telephone.

Participants fired pertinent questions at Mayor Steinberg concerning Measure U, public safety, the city budget, and other issues — major sticking points to smooth out before many of them say they can support the mayor in good faith.

Measure U, which Sacramento voters approved in November of 2018, raised the city’s sales tax from a half-cent to a full-cent. Mayor Steinberg promised to spend the bulk of the revenue to make investments in low-income neighborhoods.

Since the measure passed though, there have been bitter fights about how the new revenue should be spent; some city councilmembers pushing to support other city priorities like public safety, law enforcement, and pensions.

One the second call, Steinberg was asked to apologize to Ms. Williams for a heated exchange during the first conference call on July 30. But both meetings Steinberg attended were “healthy discussions,” Ms. Williams said.
Dr. Flojuane Cofer, the chairperson of the Measure U Community Advisory Committee, said that the “heart of the issue,” when it comes to working with the mayor, includes his reliability.

Dr. Cofer reminded Mayor Steinberg that there were no discussions about a strong-mayor system or equity in the community six months to a year ago when Black leaders brought it to his attention.

“Now you’re coming to us like it was your idea,” Dr. Cofer said. “You’re trying to do this is in response to people telling you that this is not acceptable over and over again. A lot of the things we’ve been asking for years have been sidestepped. The question of trust is what everyone is grappling with right now.”

When Dr. Cofer asked the mayor where his honesty was, Steingberg said, “Dr. Cofer, I have again great regard and respect for you. But I completely disagree with your characterization of me being new to this discussion and battle over racial and social equity,” Mayor Steinberg said.

“Is this the first time I’ve expressed frustration with this structure, this system? Absolutely not. Go back to the spring of 2019 when the city manager introduced a budget completely opposite of what I promised the voters,” Mayor Steinberg said in response.

Black Lives Matter Sacramento (BLMS) presented its own “strong mayor” forum without Steinberg ahead of the City Council’s vote.

About 2,600 viewers joined BLMS’ Aug. 3 discussion.

The Sacramento Branch of the NAACP conducted a survey after the Zoom conference meeting held Saturday, Aug. 1. Seventy percent of the participants voted against the strong mayor initiative, Ms. Williams said.

Only 42 participants voiced their opinions among the nearly 200 participants that joined the meeting. A hacker disrupted the conference with vulgar images and audio that caused the administrators to shut down the Facebook segment of the meeting.

“We will have an official vote of the strong mayor measure among members of the NAACP soon,” Ms. Williams said. “That first survey was for everyone who could participate in the conference (on Aug. 1) after we were interrupted.”

In November 2014, a majority of Sacramento voters rejected a similar strong mayor proposal during the November general election when former NBA star Kevin Johnson was the city’s mayor.

Measure L, the title of that initiative went down in defeat with 57% of the voters in opposition to 43% who approved.

Now Steinberg will get a crack at the initiative again six years later. But among Sacramento’s Black community, only a few individuals such as Cassandra Jennings, Chet Hewitt and Dr. Tecoy Porter have shown their support.

Another supporter is Carolyn Veal-Hunter, a resident of Sacramento, and legislative consultant. She has worked as a governmental affairs consultant for several Fortune 500 companies.

“If Sacramento is going to be a big city, it is going to have to act like a big city,” Ms. Veal-Hunter said. “Sacramento is one of the only cities of its size, a population of 510,000, where the mayor does not have control of the budget and policy matters. If we want to be able to hold him accountable, we have to give him that accountability. Give him that responsibility.”

By Antonio R. Harvey | OBSERVER Staff Writer