California cities need bigger city councils, not ‘strong mayors’

If you want to strengthen your California city government, don’t make your mayor more powerful. Instead, expand your city council.

This summer, two of our state’s most thoughtful mayors, Sam Liccardo of San Jose and Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, sought to make themselves “strong mayors.” The term refers to a system in which mayors have executive power and can hire and fire department heads, sign budgets or even veto council legislation.

“Strong mayors” are rare in California; only five of our 482 incorporated cities have them. More generally, California cities are run by appointed city managers, and a mayor is just a member of a city council. And in the Golden State, our city councils are weak and have few members.

Ordinarily, politicians’ desire for more power is nothing new. But the current COVID-19 and policing crises have created urgency around the debate. Voters, understandably, are demanding quick action from mayors on the pandemic and the police. But Liccardo, Steinberg and other mayors complain that they cannot respond to such public demands because they lack the necessary municipal authority. So Liccardo is pursuing “strong mayor” charter reform for San Jose, and Steinberg is backing a “strong mayor” measure in the November ballot in Sacramento.

Both men would do well to drop the idea, at least for now. And not just because the idea of ​​the “strong mayor” has sparked political conflict at a time when their cities, and the entire state, desperately need unity. The biggest problem is that creating a single powerful leader will not make California cities stronger.

The lack of power in our cities is a function of our state constitution, which centralizes power in state government and severely limits the most important local power, the power to raise taxes. That’s why even our state’s handful of “strong mayors,” like Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, frequently lament their lack of power, often begging for help from the state. If Liccardo and Steinberg succeed in becoming “strong mayors”, they will be little more than small cypresses in a vast municipal wasteland.

Voters imposed this weak local system through Proposition 13 and many related measures because they do not trust their local elected officials. Which means the only way for city governments to change this system and become stronger is to build trust with voters.

You don’t build trust by trying to turn mayors into bogus assets. You build trust by making local governments more responsive and representative. But how can local government be responsive and representative if there are hardly any representatives in local government?

It is not possible. This is why the first step towards meaningful representation is to allow municipal councils to have many more members.

Both men would do well to drop the idea, at least for now. And not just because the idea of ​​the “strong mayor” has sparked political conflict at a time when their cities, and the entire state, desperately need unity. The biggest problem is that creating a single powerful leader will not make California cities stronger.

California is a huge state with very small local elected bodies. In no other state are local elected officials so few, and therefore so distant from the people. Our most populated cities, in particular, have tiny councils.

San Jose, with over a million residents, has just 11 council members. Sacramento has nine for more than 500,000, and San Diego is even worse, with nine for its more than 1.4 million residents. No place is less representative than LA, with just 15 council members for over 4 million people.

Such minimal representation does not only mean that our representatives are further away from us and harder to talk to. It also means that there are simply too few elected offices to reflect the kaleidoscopic diversity of California and its communities. With so few local representatives, there are fewer ideas that our municipal governments desperately need.

If you look at some of the biggest cities in the world, you will probably see large and vibrant city councils. The city council of Madrid, Spain, has 57 members and may be the most innovative in the world, having created an online platform “Decide Madrid” for citizen ideas which has been copied by more than 100 local, regional and national governments in across the planet. .

Vienna, a pioneer in using local democracy to foster housing and development, has 100 representatives in its local parliament. Paris, perhaps the most beautiful city in the world, has 163. Tokyo, one of the most dynamic and creative cities in the world, has 127 city councillors. Seoul, a leader in terms of civic engagement and participation, has 110. Some creative cities guarantee greater representation by dividing themselves into districts; Mexico City, for example, has 16 distinct municipalities.

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

But identifying new local politicians might not be as difficult as one might think, especially now. The thousands of people marching through our streets are the kind of civic-minded people we need most in local offices.

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

Tellingly, debates over “strong mayor” plans in these two cities have sparked complaints about a lack of representation.

In Sacramento, Steinberg changed his original plan in response to community and political opposition. He also linked his November “strong mayor” measure to provisions meant to ensure more fairness and representation in the making of city policy.

In San Jose, Liccardo backed out of plans for a “strong mayor” ballot measure in November in response to objections from neighborhood groups, ethnic organizations and Latino city council members. Liccardo instead announced he would pursue an inclusive charter review process, with a vote on a broad reform package in 2022.

“Over the past few weeks, several organizations have urged that we slow down the charter reform process designed to lead to 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 people.”

It does. That’s why more residents should be on duty. With more of our neighbors campaigning for council, Californians would be more likely to pay attention to and vote in our local elections.

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

Bernard P. Love