Measure L would leave Sacramento with the weakest ethics-review committee of any major California city

Strong mayor is, as they say, an ethics fail

You might have caught SN&R publisher Jeff vonKaenel’s interview with Mayor Kevin Johnson in last week’s issue. Typically, it’s the job of reporters and editors, not newspaper owners, to interview politicians for print. But perhaps Johnson is just more comfortable talking to a CEO. Whatever, the boss-on-boss Q-and-A action was revealing.

Like when K.J. bragged on the Think Big organization he created to generate support for a publicly funded Kings arena. “I would like to see Think Big on the inside, and that to me is the more strategic way of getting things done,” said K.J. to JVK. Meaning, he wants Think Big inside City Hall.

Think Big is a private nonprofit corporation, one of several that Johnson created to solicit big donations from business interests, and then use that money to boost K.J.’s political brand and promote a shared policy agenda.

Think Big did actually operate out of Johnson’s offices in City Hall for a while, using city interns and fellows as free labor. But Sacramento City Manager John Shirey gave Think Big the boot, saying it “never should have been allowed” to occupy City Hall and use public resources. “The people who are here need to be engaged in city work. Those nonprofit organizations cannot be using city resources unless they are sanctioned by the city council,” he explained.

So now, Johnson sees Measure L as a way to embed K.J. Inc. further into the public bureaucracy. And who will tell him no? Not the city manager. Not if he wants to keep his job.

Measure L backers talk a lot about “transparency” and “accountability.” Well, around the time Shirey was showing Think Big the door, Bites interviewed K.J.’s lawyer, Fred Hiestand, about the lack of public disclosure of funding and spending at the mayor’s various quasi-public nonprofits.

“There are a lot of nosy people, the K.J. haters, who have nothing better to do than to ask for more than the law requires,” Hiestand said. “But we have no plans to deviate from what the law requires.”

So yes, let’s bring that inside City Hall. You can almost taste the transparency and accountability already.

Measure L backers argue that Sacramento ought to be more like other large California cities. Bigger cities have strong mayor, so Sacramento should, too.

What they never ever tell you is that those other cities also have much stronger institutions to enforce campaign-finance and ethics rules, something Measure L’s authors left out of their version of strong mayor.

Yes, Measure L has language requiring the city council to pass legislation to create an “ethics committee” to review and monitor the city’s ethics code.

The ethics committee is in there to give the illusion of balance and public vetting. But in fact, it’s a cheap imitation of ethics commissions at work in San Francisco, San Diego, San Jose, Los Angeles and Oakland.

The main difference between a committee and a commission is the power to enforce the rules. The San Francisco Ethics Commission can subpoena records when conducting its audits and investigations. The commissions in Los Angeles and San Diego have the power to levy fines against elected officials and candidates who violate political-ethics and campaign-finance rules.

In San Jose, which doesn’t even have a strong-mayor system at all, the ethics commission can also take enforcement action against ethics violators. In Oakland, the ethics commission is comparatively weak. A San Francisco Chronicle columnist recently complained of the Oakland commission that, “It’s languished for 18 years as a largely forgotten, underfunded, powerless branch of city government.”

But it turns out that this November 4, Oakland voters will weigh in on a ballot measure to significantly strengthen their ethics commission, giving it power to enforce campaign-finance, lobbying and conflict-of-interest laws, among other rules, and substantially increasing its budget.

To use a favorite word among strong-mayor boosters, Sacramento’s extremely weak ethics committee will make it an “outlier” among California’s major cities.

That is assuming we get an ethics committee at all. Johnson could easily veto anything the council proposes, with little fear of being overturned. And the current city council is simply not going to create a strong ethics committee anyway. In fact, Bites can pretty much guarantee that you’ll never hear the words “ethics committee” out of this council again, once Measure L is defeated. Instead, it’s going to be up to groups like Common Cause and the League of Women Voters to write real ethics reform and put it on the ballot. Hopefully they’ll do it, and voters will approve the same kinds of anti-corruption protections other big California cities have in place.

Bites should mention that there is one large California city without an ethics commission: Fresno. So if you want to be more like Fresno, you’re good to go with Measure L.