Dysfunctional Town

Too many crises leave city leaders helpless

By R.E. Graswich
July 2022

On Railroad Drive, a security guard blocks a public street with his patrol car. He moves when people ask nicely. Unless they want to build an illegal homeless camp.

At police headquarters, cops hear the words “use of force policy” and get confused. The policy changes often, a politicized moving target. Cops grow frustrated.

In Washington, business executives and city officials meet with local members of Congress and remind them about matters of community importance. One City Council member, Katie Valenzuela, skips the trip. She goes to Cuba and celebrates May Day with comrades.

Greetings from Sacramento, summer of 2022, a place where no one’s in charge.

Welcome to a town where residents take desperate measures to protect themselves against the rising tide of tent cities and street violence. Where cops fear for their careers, if not their lives, when answering calls for service. Where a councilwoman posts photos of herself partying in Havana.

How quaint that only nine years ago the big controversy involved taking nickels and dimes from parking meters to support investment in a new arena. Those were the days.

What went wrong? Let’s start with failed leadership at City Hall.

When Darrell Steinberg was elected mayor in 2016, his appeal was based on two words: legislative experience. He was the city’s representative at the state Capitol for 14 years. He became president of the state Senate as a compromise between legislators from Los Angeles and the Bay Area. His achievement was the city’s pride.

Given his background, Steinberg sounded credible when he spoke about leveraging his Capitol relationships. We believed him when he said he could solve the homeless crisis.

But there was a problem. Being a successful mayor requires skills specific to chief executives. Steinberg is no CEO. He’s a negotiator and consensus builder, a guy who makes deals, preferably in a back room without many people watching. By personality, reputation and inclination, he’s not a charismatic leader. He doesn’t conjure creative solutions and convince people to follow.

His most impressive accomplishment is an old idea borrowed from other places—hiking the local sales tax to infuse a city budget burdened by recession. Voters saw sensibility in Steinberg’s tax increase. They went along.

When he borrowed another old idea—rewrite the city charter and grant the mayor executive authority—he tripped over his loafers and fell on his face.

Here’s another problem. Sacramento residents want a chief executive mayor who’s not a chief executive.

They want a sincere person who articulates a path forward, guides City Council colleagues around controversies and operates within traditional constraints. Voters want local authorities to answer the phones at City Hall, keep the streets safe and clean, fill potholes, collect garbage and make toilets flush.

Now the public’s expectations are destroyed by homelessness, civil unrest, economic mayhem from the pandemic and gang shootouts. Steinberg and the bureaucracy he leads are exposed and vulnerable, like sheep stalked by wolves.

It gets worse. A City Council in transition, populated by naive and inexperienced members Valenzuela, Mai Vang and Sean Loloee, becomes an environment for poor judgment. December will deliver three more new members.

Prediction: Dysfunction and bad decisions rule City Hall in 2023.

A sense of inevitability settles over events that push the wounded city into summer: the Railroad Drive blockade, muddled rules for police, Valenzuela’s Cuban frolic.

Homelessness grows and drags the city down an aimless path. A willfully ignorant civilian police review commission dictates a mashup of dangerous policies. Valenzuela embraces radical politics and doubles down.

Maybe, just maybe, Steinberg and the City Council could have steered the city through one crisis. But not waves of disasters, not tent cities and doorway sleepers and civil eruptions and looting and COVID-19 and gang shootouts. Not this mayor. Not this City Council.

Katie Valenzuela didn’t represent the future of local politics when she picked Havana over Washington. But she sure sent a warning.

R.E. Graswich can be reached at regraswich@icloud.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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