Kevin Johnson turned Sacramento's mayor's office into a fundraising tool for his own pet projects

There are no real consequences from the Fair Political Practices Commission for bending and breaking the rules

Mayor Kevin Johnson was fined, again, this month for legal violations involving his network of nonprofit organizations. The state’s Fair Political Practices Commission dinged him for not reporting travel expenses paid for by The Walton Family Foundation, heirs of the Wal-Mart fortune. The travel was to promote Johnson’s education-reform agenda, a personal project which has become increasingly tangled up with his public office.

Johnson was fined $37,500 in 2012 when he failed to report dozens of “behested payments” to his organizations from various interests like the Walton foundation and Sacramento Kings. Some of that money was used by Johnson’s Think Big Sacramento arena booster group to cook up the phony economic-impact reports that are still being waved around by arena proponents today.

The fine this time was a slap on the wrist, just $1,000. This gives the mistaken impression that the problem with Johnson’s network of nonprofits is merely sloppy paperwork.

It’s not. The problem is that Johnson has turned the office of the mayor into a fundraising tool for his own pet projects.

These behests are blurring the line between the public office and Johnson’s personal business. Just this month, he behested $400,000 from Kaiser Permanente to fund a college-readiness program at his Sacramento Charter High School.

The FPPC’s minimal fine just confirms that the mayor’s cost-benefit analysis was right: There are no real consequences for bending and breaking the rules, so let the money flow, and let the slush fund grow.

Speaking of K.J. Inc.: The mayor’s State of the City address happened. Bites didn’t go. It was, according to all reports, more of an arena pep rally than an actual report on the state of the city. You know, that territory outside the bubble of Arenaland where the rest of us live? Where the neighborhoods have too many vacant lots and boarded-up storefronts, and where people have serious doubts about the direction the city is headed in.

In 2008, candidate Johnson promised a “city that works for everyone.” In 2014, the city only works for those folks on the right team.

As for the rest, let them eat nachos. The mayor reportedly promised that unused food from the new arena would go to local food banks. Awfully generous. But hot dogs for homeless people is a long, long way from a solid community-benefits agreement.

That’s what cities like Los Angeles and San Diego and others get when they help subsidize sports facilities: written agreements that guarantee tangible benefits in exchange for the considerable costs to the public.

In Los Angeles, the community-benefits agreement, or CBA, for the development around the Staples Center included living wages for all jobs in the project area, money for affordable housing, and investment in neighborhood parks, among other benefits.

In San Diego, the Ballpark Village deal included living wages, job-training funds, affordable housing inside the project and a grocery store. That was on top of agreements that not only guaranteed certain types of ancillary development around the stadium site, but also required that the surrounding development generate enough new tax revenue to pay back the city’s bonds. Sacramento is nowhere near getting those sorts of protections.

“Not only have the Kings made no commitments regarding community benefits for the mixed-use development, they have told the public almost nothing about what the development will be like.”

That’s from a statement put out by the Sacramento Coalition for Shared Prosperity, after the mayor’s State of the City address. The coalition of neighborhood, housing, labor and environmental groups has presented the Kings and the city with a list of items that might be in a CBA. But they’ve mostly been blown off.

“We have not received a counter-proposal of any kind, and there has been virtually no discussion of the benefits that should be included in the commercial development.”

Instead, the Kings are trying the divide-and-conquer approach. For example, they bought off Sacramento Area Congregations Together—which had earlier joined the Coalition in pushing for a CBA—by promising 20 to 70 union apprenticeships to be drawn from low-income ZIP codes. In exchange, ACT agreed to file an amicus brief in support of the city’s decision to block a proposed ballot measure on public funding of the arena. The Greater Sacramento Urban League was part of the deal, too.

As Bites wrote this column, the fate of the arena ballot measure was still undecided in court. But clearly, the ballot measure was one of the few pieces of leverage that community groups have as they push for a better arena deal. ACT’s somewhat mercenary decision undermines that leverage a little bit more.

ACT’s executive director, Ashlin Malouf Splinden said her group wasn’t trying to take sides in the legal fight. “We just support the building of the arena because we think it will bring good jobs,” she explained. It doesn’t take many.