I am one of dozens of people of my generation in Sacramento who count Mayor Joe Serna, Jr. as my mentor. As my teacher, council member, alcalde and friend in the 1980’s and through the 1990’s, he helped shape my commitment to local government and public service. When important issues face our city, I frequently find myself reflecting and wondering what he would do in these circumstances, and what advice would be give me. I can’t claim to know what Joe would say during the debates that seem to consume Sacramento of late, nor would I ever be as presumptuous as to speculate. But I often think of the words he did share, and I think I know what I would say to him if he were here:
You would be happy to know that your impact on the affairs of Sacramento hasn’t diminished much over the past decade. Your name is invoked, often by both sides, whenever an important and controversial issue faces our city. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say, “Joe Serna would have. . . “, I could probably build myself a very large public amenity in the downtown rail yards. Lately, two issues have made me think a great deal about you : strong mayor and the arena.
While the issue of “strong mayor” has not been on the agenda for some time, there is great speculation that it will again rear its head in one form or another, particularly if the current Mayor is successful in getting his allies elected to the City Council in June and/or November.
You and I had many conversations on this topic while you were Mayor. I remember you saying that you felt the City had grown to the point where it was in need of a charter change that would give the mayor greater opportunity to govern. Of course at the time the position was not a full-time position, and that is what you complained about most. That has since changed and you would be happy to know that the mayor is now given the opportunity to devote the time necessary to do the job.
Whatever form the change should take, I also remember you being adamant about one thing. You were very clear of your intention to run for a third term and final term. You planned to propose a change only if re-elected to a third term, so it would take effect during the tenure of your successor. As you said, to do otherwise would appear too self-serving. Unfortunately that third term was not to be.
Lately, all of this talk of arena is somewhat reminiscent of an issue you faced when you worked with civic leaders, led by Greg Luckenbill, to lure the Raiders to Sacramento. I remember after a long rancorous public meeting at the Community Center, when the deal appeared to be on the verge of falling apart, you said putting up that much public money to lure a sports franchise to town was the “biggest mistake” or your political life. After much time has passed and emotions are long since calmed, I am not sure I would agree with that harsh self-evaluation, but I do understand the sentiment. The $50 Million the city and county raised in bonds to get the deal done was a huge risk, albeit not a $300 Million risk, but the deal was conservatively constructed in a way that ensured that the City would always be made whole. As a result, while we didn’t get the Raiders, we did get a refurbished Community Center, Memorial Auditorium and numerous other city projects that have been enjoyed by a generation and help make our city great.
Admirably, you knew when to admit that the deal wasn’t going through, step back and look toward tomorrow without creating a festering wound in our city. You set deadlines, and you held all parties to them. When it was clear the time had come, you moved on. But that didn’t mean you were a defeatist, for it wasn’t long before you were donning a green and gold baseball cap emblazoned with “Sacramento” and exclaiming “Play Ball”. You showed me that a leader knows it is important to aim high, yet also show the patience and maturity to wait for another day – another example of putting the interests of the city before your own agenda.
Joe, this is the great city you always said it was. It can be the great city you always dreamed it would be. We will have our bumps in the road, but I think if we consider your example from time to time, we will get there in a more civil way, worthy of your past leadership and deserving of all Sacramentans.
PS. Any advice you can give on getting a school bond passed would be greatly appreciated.
That I will save for another letter, another day.