A lot to rethink

Now is time to push for reform at City Hall

The Sacramento Bee’s Ryan Lillis moved the story of Mayor Kevin Johnson’s nonprofits forward in a big way last week. He discovered that one of those groups, Think Big Sacramento, failed to report $350,000 in donations from the Sacramento Kings when it was legally required to because of a “clerical error.”

For weeks the mayor’s office has mostly refused to answer SN&R’s questions about the nonprofits, not returning phone calls and sending out nonresponses like, “The Sacramento Public Policy Foundation and Sacramento Public Policy Forum comply with all city, state, and federal laws and regulations for disclosure.”

Yeah, except when they don’t. Meanwhile, Johnson’s lawyer Fred Hiestand says only “nosy people” with “nothing better to do” want more disclosure about the groups.

After getting busted for not disclosing the Kings cash, perhaps Hiestand should add, “And we would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids.”

Some citizens have responded to the hinky business with the K.J.’s nonprofits with a Recall Mayor Kevin Johnson campaign. It’s happening mostly on Facebook. The recall-K.J. page has about 100 friends. Just up the road in Oakland, the Recall Mayor Jean Quan Facebook page has almost 3,670 likes. Johnson is no doubt concerned that Oakland is a much more world-class city in this regard.

The anonymous recall K.J. organizers here aren’t circulating a real recall petition; it’s one of those Change.org jobs, the favored tool of discontented but not terribly serious people everywhere.

Were someone to attempt an actual recall, Bites certainly wouldn’t begrudge them the tools handed down by our progressive forebears to root out corruption and cronyism. Unlike the recalls of, say, Govs. Gray Davis or Scott Walker, there may have been at least a couple actual laws broken here.

But a recall is not going to happen—not based on the facts before us right now. Instead, it might be more productive to grab this moment and push for reform at City Hall.

After all, Johnson is probably not the last mayor of Sacramento who is going to struggle with ethical questions, like, “Should I use city funds to pay for my campaign literature?” Or, “What’s the difference, really, between the mayor’s office and my personal property?” And since he is likely to be in office for four more years, he may benefit from a little more structure.

City Council candidate Steve Hansen knows the time is right for reform—sort of. He’s taken as one of his slogans “Repairing public trust in government,” and says council members ought to give up perks like cellphones and free parking. He also wants to see an independent auditor with subpoena power to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by city officials.

Not bad. But how about an ethics commission, like they have in Los Angeles, which can give advice on ethical issues, thus preventing problems and also enforce rules, push for greater transparency and investigate whistle-blower complaints?

How about a useful system for public financing of elections to diminish the power of special-interest money in City Hall? Perhaps it’s time to consider some rules governing growing use of nonprofit groups by council members to raise unlimited money from donors who have business before the city?

These are all ideas that could be taken up by a Sacramento Charter Commission. But lots of people think the Charter Commission is a waste of time. In fact, in an interview on www.ransackedmedia.com, Hansen compared the Charter Commission candidates to the cast of The Real World.

Yes, those citizen-commission people do get involved in all sorts of unnecessary drama, don’t they, Steve Hansen?

Bites recently talked to Sacramento Charter Commissioncandidate Derek Cressman about how to deal with money in local politics. Cressman is western states director of the national good-government group Common Cause.

He suggests we “rethink how political campaigns work in Sacramento”—starting with the old-school printed voter guide. This election, candidates have to pay $2,100 just to have a brief statement printed in the guide.

“What about an information hub that voters can go to to see a bunch of debates and four or five 30-second YouTube ads and candidate statements and résumés, none of which would require any money being spent by candidates,” Cressman said.

“You could somewhat reduce the need for financing these campaigns, by changing the ways voters get information about the candidates,” he added.

There’s a lot to rethink—and to reform. Let’s take the opportunity.