How to revive Sacramento’s trust in the mayor and city government

We’ve opined and spent more than a few barrels of ink discussing 915 I Street in this Editorial space. Yet here we are, again, talking about City Hall and its issues when it comes to transparency, accountability and good government. These conversations invariably lead back to Mayor Kevin Johnson’s office. Here we go again.

Oftentimes, it feels as if we’re writing editorials that go straight into a black hole. But then, occasionally, we see the journalism in this paper impacting positive change. To that end, this week feels like the right time to revisit some of our City Hall editorials from recent months, a proverbial “Greatest Hits” from SN&R’s editorial board.

So, let’s start with the issue du jour: Johnson using private Gmail accounts for public business. This issue is new to many Sacramentans. But writers at this paper have put K.J.’s Gmails in the cross hairs for a while now.

We first dinged K.J. for his Gmail use in April, writing that “Mayor Kevin Johnson and his staff’s use of private email when conducting public business … is a problem.” (See “K.J., Hillary, email,” SN&R Editorial, April 30, at

The mayor dodges transparency by using secret and private email addresses to perform public work. This may be legal in California for now—the courts are hashing it out—but just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right.

As we also wrote back in April, “The city needs to stop this practice of allowing private email for public work, and should implement a policy directing staff as soon as possible.” It’s been more than two months since we wrote this, and the mayor’s secret Gmail has spurred even more problems—and legal costs—for the city.

If this all sounds familiar, it’s because Hillary Clinton, when she was secretary of state, also used private email and servers despite working as a public official. The hammer came down on Clinton this past February—but apparently the mayor did not pay much attention.

Email controversies abound at City Hall, another being the plan to delete older emails, ones between city workers that are simple, “transitory” communications older than two years. We’re fine with getting rid of old conversations, emails about where to eat lunch and what’s happening over the weekend. But the city is placing a tremendous amount of trust in its employees, who will be relied upon to determine which emails are crucial and which can be deleted. That policy is worrisome.

As we wrote in February, “Allowing the digital output of our public servants to disappear into the ether is bad for transparency, public access and journalistic or law-enforcement investigations.” (See “Don’t delete,” SN&R Editorial, February 26, at

As reporter Joe Rubin noted in this issue (see page 17), the city plans to delete some 50 million emails as soon as possible. Eye on Sacramento, a local watchdog group, sued the city to stop “The Big Delete,” and on Tuesday a judge granted EOS a hold on any deletions until July 24.

With all the deleting of text messages and secret emails, harassment complaints and public-private confusion, an ethics commission would do wonders in ushering Sacramento out of this gray area and into the sunshine.

As we wrote in February: “[A] number of major cities have ethics commissions that operate locally to ensure that elected and appointed officials are operating within the purview of their offices and are not playing fast and loose with public money …

“Voters and taxpayers need to be assured that there is a watchdog in place, especially when so much of the city’s money is spent on development that will benefit private interests.” (See “Watchdog with teeth,” SN&R Editorial, February 19, at

Trust in local government is at a low. Council members, the city attorney and city manager haven’t made any moves to renew the public’s faith. So, it’s up to us, Sacramento: Now is the time to demand change, to ask for immediate ethics and good-government reforms.