Questions for Mr. Graden
Supporters of one of the three candidates in the mayor’s race sound at times like they’re backing two different people. They come away from conversations with their chosen candidate, conducted in private or in small groups, using very different language to describe what he intends if elected. Maybe Mr. Graden can clear up the confusion for us, and help voters understand what kind of role he envisions for the mayor’s office in Vallejo.
Graden backer Mayor Osby Davis made a fumbling last minute attempt in July of 2014 to change the structure under our City Charter to give the mayor's office a larger role (and salary). Sitting Jumpstart Councilmembers Malgapo and Dew-Costa expressed their willingness to entertain the idea if given more time to discuss it. Incumbent Verder-Aliga, who is running for re-election on the JumpStart slate with Mr. Graden, relished the opportunity to support the mayor’s initiative in the face of loud public opposition, a position she characterized as a “profile in courage.”
Our current council-manager structure for local government is used in all but a handful of California cities. Charter cities are free to opt for a strong-mayor system instead that transfers executive power from a professional City Manager to the office of the Mayor, but only five cities have done so. You can find a discussion of the pros and cons of the two structures on the Voices of Vallejo web site, using the example of a recent push for a strong-mayor initiative in Sacramento. Our current system distributes political power equally among members of the Council. The Mayor has just one vote out of seven, and a City Manager hired by the Council runs the city.
In public Mr. Graden sticks to general statements, declaring that what we need in Vallejo is “a strong mayor with a business background.” That can be interpreted two ways, each requiring further clarification to determine what the candidate means. A Graden supporter recently admonished me on a public forum for not going directly to the source for an answer. She called up Mr. Graden to reaffirm in private what he had told her small group, also in private. She was assured again in no uncertain terms that he’s against changing to a strong-mayor structure. That seems to be the message received by audiences composed of progressive-leaning voters.
If the mayor remains just one vote on a council of seven, then what is it about Mr. Graden’s leadership skills that could possibly outweigh the qualifications of Bob Sampayan, who has vastly more experience with all aspects of city government? Mr. Graden served six years on the Planning Commission with little to show in the way of proactive leadership to address, for example, issues like the glacial pace of permitting small businesses in Vallejo. He chose to get re-appointed to the Commission again in August by the previous Jumpstart slate plus Mayor Davis in a typical 4-3 split Council vote. By continuing as a Commission member during the campaign, he can cite the need to avoid showing bias and deny voters his position on the controversial cement mill and temporary port project proposed for the south Vallejo waterfront. The project application won’t come before the Commission and then the Council for a vote until after the election. That’s not leadership.
Now listen to a recent letter to the editor endorsing Mr. Graden (Tausha Johnson: Graden the Choice, 10/07/2016): “Landis Graden promises to bring strength and responsibility to the position of mayor, making this position accountable to the citizens of Vallejo. The mayor should be the head of our city, with staff supporting the mayor. I have no doubt that Landis Graden can bring economic stability to the City of Vallejo.” Ms. Johnson provides a succinct three sentence description of a strong-mayor system, along with the accountability and economic benefit arguments typically employed by proponents of a change to the city charter - just as in the failed effort in Sacramento. Currently city staff answers only to the city manager. The mayor and councilmembers are bound by a noninterference clause in the Vallejo Charter that strictly limits interaction between our mayor and city staff
How is it that ardent backers of Mr. Graden can come out of private conversations holding such divergent ideas about the role their candidate wants to play in the mayor’s office? What is being said in private that would leave behind such mixed messages? If he intends to push for a change to the city charter to transfer executive power from the city manager to the mayor’s office, then make the case in public and not just to select receptive audiences. Ms. Johnson appears to believe that kind of change is both Mr. Graden's intention and his promise. If she's mistaken she deserves to find that out before the election.
With the election of just one of the other three Jumpstart Council candidates, Mr. Graden would likely have the votes to put forward a strong-mayor initiative. Mayoral candidate Sampayan and incumbent Council candidate McConnell publicly voiced their opposition from the dais as Councilmembers in 2014. Given the contradictory statements coming to us secondhand through supporters, Mr. Graden owes voters an equally clear public explanation of his views regarding the proper roles of our mayor and city manager. Real accountability requires transparency. If we allow candidates to avoid specificity in public while telling people in private what they want to hear, we lose the opportunity to hold our elected officials accountable.
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