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After a lengthy and noteworthy career in the Legislature, Darrell Steinberg segued into the Sacramento mayor’s office and laid out an ambitious agenda to tackle the city’s most serious problems.

One of them, very obvious to anyone walking or driving in the city’s neighborhoods, is homelessness.

Along the banks of the Sacramento and American rivers, on downtown sidewalks – and even in the overhang of city hall – the tents and tarps that shelter Sacramento County’s 3,000-plus homeless residents have proliferated.

Creating more permanent and sanitary options for Sacramento’s street people, along with physical and mental health services, addiction treatment and perhaps even employment opportunities, sit atop Steinberg’s agenda, but he’s found it to be tough slogging.

Members of the city council, while outwardly sympathetic, are reluctant to have even temporary shelters in their districts, and the city’s bureaucrats don’t appear to be fully aboard.

Steinberg’s frustrations were sharply displayed during a recent city council meeting, when the ordinarily mild-mannered mayor lashed out at the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency.

A year ago, he announced a plan to build up to 1,000 tiny homes for the homeless, using federal housing vouchers as a financial underpinning, and depended on the agency to make it happen. However, he said housing agency officials have dragged their feet.

“I’m left a bit empty by the fact that I make this speech a year ago, you put together a so-called RFI (Request For Information) and this comes back here tonight without a single recommendation,” Steinberg told agency officials at the council meeting.

“I’d like you to please come back on this in a couple weeks and please get us started on 100 tiny homes,” Steinberg added.

Slow-footed bureaucracies often frustrate the plans of politicians but Steinberg’s situation is made worse by Sacramento’s inexplicable unwillingness to modernize its municipal government.

Every other major California city has adopted a so-called “strong mayor” system in which the elected head of government commands the bureaucracy, including hiring and firing department heads, fashioning budgets and otherwise functioning as the chief executive – and being held accountable for what happens.

Sacramento, however, clings to a hybrid system in which the mayor is directly elected, but has little direct authority. Instead, a city manager answerable not only to the mayor but the entire city council is the chief executive. It’s a system that works well for smaller cities, but doesn’t for larger ones.

While Steinberg can, therefore, advocate certain policies – such as building 1,000 tiny houses – he has no power to command the bureaucracy to fall in line, unlike other mayors, governors or presidents.

Steinberg’s predecessor, former basketball star Kevin Johnson, attempted to create a stronger mayoralty but failed – largely because his centrist policies alienated the city’s powerful liberal interest groups, including public employee unions.

Steinberg is learning that no matter how ambitious his agenda might be, and no matter how good he is at articulating it, his lack of executive authority makes fulfilling it much more difficult. Ultimately, he will be held politically responsible if his agenda falls short, but unfairly so.

One-by-one, California’s other large cities – Sacramento now has more than a half-million residents – have recognized that they need mayors with the authority to act and more direct accountability for those acts.

Sacramento is long overdue to bring its government into the 21st century. Until it does, it will not become the top-tier city its boosters envision.

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CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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