City council confidential: Secret Kings arena memo debacle leads to policy tweak

New rules would make it more difficult for council members to leak private information

Elected representatives who want to share sensitive information with the public now have to ask their colleagues for permission first.

On Tuesday, the Sacramento City Council was set to replace its four-year-old confidentiality policy with a more explicit version. This one requires the council’s majority approval before a single member could disclose confidential communications, or else face a public censure.

Councilman Steve Hansen first suggested the changes back in March.

A city staff report states the confidentiality policy was revised “to address concerns regarding recent disclosure of confidential attorney-client privileged information.”

The privileged information in question refers to a confidential legal analysis in January that raised doubts about whether the city could win a court battle to prevent a public vote on a $258 million subsidy for a new Sacramento Kings arena.

Disclosure of the memo, which SN&R first reported, is prohibited under the original confidentiality policy, confirmed Assistant City Attorney Sandra Talbott.

But the leak reverberated within City Hall, with Hansen saying there was talk among officials that they should stop using electronic documents to discuss privileged matters altogether. It’s made for less open dialogue in closed-session meetings, he added.

“Everybody is sort of on edge just because of the arena,” Hansen said.

The city’s original confidentiality policy was approved in February 2010, after some privileged memos regarding a Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency issue were leaked, Hansen said.

When the revision was originally discussed in April, Councilwoman Angelique Ashby disagreed with public commenters who said it would limit government transparency. “This policy is about accountability,” she said.

On Monday, Hansen said he had no illusions that the revised policy could keep those who want to leak privileged information from doing so. “Some people feel righteous doing this,” he said.

But he said he hoped it would provide “a clean, honest path” to elected officials who want to reveal “an honest or serious dispute on litigation issues.”

Hansen said the more detailed policy wasn’t connected to disclosures Councilman Kevin McCarty made last year to two individuals who oppose public investment in a new downtown arena.

According to court documents and The Sacramento Bee, McCarty criticized a tentative arena deal between the city and the Kings to attorney Patrick Soluri and arena opponent Isaac Gonzalez, saying the term sheet offer included hidden subsidies—or “sweeteners”—intended to make the deal more palatable to investors.

“Everyone has known that Councilman McCarty has had an opinion on this for a long time,” Hansen told SN&R, adding that what McCarty did wasn’t so different from what other council members do regarding other topics.

Under the proposed new policy, a council member wanting a confidentiality waiver must first ask the city attorney to review the information he or she wants to disclose, then make a case to the full city council. Hansen believed a majority vote would rule the decision.

Additionally, the revised policy adds language that specifically requires a council member’s recusal from any matter in which the member “is a named party in litigation with a financial interest against the City of Sacramento,” the staff report states.

If the council member has no financial interest in the litigation, Talbott said, “The situation would be assessed on a case-by-case basis.”

Hansen, an attorney, said he was surprised there wasn’t already something on the books to deal with such conflicts of interest.

The revised policy was on the council’s May 20 consent calendar, which typically means automatic approval. With the council scheduled to vote on a series of binding agreements related to the Kings arena, Hansen didn’t anticipate pulling the confidentiality item for discussion “with everything else going on.”