Ethically deficient

Activist groups launch series of meetings in hopes of making Sacramento government more open and honest

The League of Women Voters and Eye on Sacramento have scheduled several community meetings to gather public input on potential ethics reforms at City Hall. All meetings start at 6:30 p.m. The dates are: February 19 at Clunie Community Center (601 Alhambra Blvd.); February 26 at Artisan Building (1901 Del Paso Blvd.); March 12 at South Natomas Library (2901 Truxel Rd.); March 25 at Robbie Waters Pocket-Greenhaven Library (7335 Gloria Dr.); April 8 at North Natomas Library (4660 Via Ingoglia); and April 23 at Belle Cooledge Library (5600 South Land Park Dr.).

Sacramento’s politics are as money-soaked and special-interest driven as those in any big city. But Sacramento is behind major metros in California when it comes to enforcing political ethics and campaign-finance rules.

Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland all have independent ethics commissions to keep an eye on local politicians. Sacramento and Fresno are the only big California cities without any sort of ethics commission.

“When you have a lot of money and power concentrated into a few hands, it makes sense to have a watchdog,” says attorney Nicolas Heidorn, who has been working with a coalition of community groups to create that watchdog.

It’s a project of the Sacramento chapter of the League of Women Voters and the City Hall monitors Eye on Sacramento, along with other local groups. Their effort is in some ways a reaction to Mayor Kevin Johnson’s ill-fated Measure L, the strong-mayor ballot measure. But the “lengthy and intense” process of public vetting that they are planning is pretty much the opposite of Johnson’s backroom special.

“We are finding that there are a great number of people who care very deeply about making city government open, honest and ethical. We believe we will craft a package of reforms that will help restore citizen trust in government and make Sacramentans very proud,” says Craig Powell with Eye on Sacramento.

The first public meeting on ethics reform will be held at 6:30 p.m. on February 19 at the Clunie Community Center. Special guests include District 3 City Councilman Jeff Harris and Kimberly Nalder, who directs the Project for an Informed Electorate at Sacramento State. More meetings will follow in each city council district.

The ethics commissions in California’s other big cities differ in their particulars, but as a group they offer some ideas about reforms in Sacramento.

All five commissions have subpoena power, and the ability to hold hearings and conduct investigations. All are charged with enforcing campaign finance, lobbying and conflict-of-interest laws. All five have enforcement power, and the ability to impose fines, of up to $5,000 per violation.

Other powers are more particular to each city. The Oakland ethics commission has the power to set the salaries of city council members. In Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, the ethics commission can adopt new ethics rules. In Oakland and San Jose, they can only recommend such legislation.

One of the big differences, and perhaps the biggest potential stumbling block for Sacramento, is in how each city provides staff and gives resources to its ethics commission. In Los Angeles, the commission boasts a staff of 23 people, including an executive director. At the other end of the spectrum is San Jose, where the city clerk is responsible for staffing ethics-commission meetings.

Without language guaranteeing some adequate level of funding and staff, it would be easy enough to neuter an ethics commission in Sacramento. That’s essentially what happened here with the position of independent budget analyst, which was approved by city council years ago but never funded. Only in the last few weeks has the council finally moved to fill the position.

The League and Eye on Sacramento also want to explore new rules on government transparency and how the city provides public information, as well as creation of an independent commission to redraw city council districts every 10 years.

It remains to be seen whether the current city council will be helpful or hostile to the ethics-reform effort. Johnson has said that ethics reform should be handled by the ad hoc committee of council members he convened to implement Measure L. That committee has so far issued one mostly substance-free report on ethics. Its meetings are closed to the public, and it only includes council members who supported strong mayor. And Bites hasn’t heard anything from any of those council members (Johnson, Allen Warren, Jay Schenirer and Angelique Ashby) suggesting they would support the creation of an ethics commission with teeth. But Warren has at least agreed to participate in the League/Eye on Sacramento meeting in his district on February 26.

Councilman Steve Hansen, who led the No on Measure L campaign, has already gone on the record in support of an ethics commission with enforcement power, and an open public process to get there. And Councilman Harris also said he supported an ethics commission during his council race last year. Hopefully the strong-mayor bloc on the council will join them in supporting citizen-driven reform at City Hall. Or, at least, they won’t work against it.