On Grantland Johnson’s unpopular fights

His final act opposed strong mayor. Plus SMUD elections and chain stores in Curtis Park Village.

The first thing this reporter noticed about Grantland Johnson was his handshake—one of those old-school, thumb-clasping, multipart deals, which hinted that California’s secretary of Health and Welfare was a little different from the other honchos standing around at that press conference, whatever it was for.

Johnson was different, as many of us recalled last week after hearing the sad news that he had died at age 65. He was a Sacramento City Council member, the first African-American to hold the post of Sacramento County supervisor, a champion for civil rights and for working people.

He also had a rare willingness to take on unpopular fights and remarkable foresight. He got elected to the board of supervisors with the backing of Sacramento’s big developers, as supervisors generally do. But by 1992, he was railing against suburban sprawl and developer influence, and predicting the county’s growth policies would worsen economic and social segregation. He was right-on, of course.

Ten years ago, Johnson broke with his buddies in Sacramento’s political establishment by campaigning against Measure A, the transportation sales tax that Johnson predicted would shortchange mass transit and encourage sprawl. Right again.

One of the last things he did in his public life was to sign his name to the ballot argument against Measure L, the “strong mayor” initiative backed by Mayor Kevin Johnson and his allies, on the ballot this fall. Johnson’s gone, but he’s still fighting the fight.

Of the five seats on the Sacramento Municipal Utility District board of trustees up for election this November, only one of them will actually be decided by voters. Elections were canceled when no one showed up to oppose incumbent board members Rob Kerth, Genevieve Shiroma and Bill Slaton. Likewise, community activist Dave Tamayo will join the board unopposed, because no one else bothered to fill out the paperwork. Ratepayers (and other registered voters) in the Arden area will have three SMUD candidates to choose from this fall.

Why is it that SMUD districts of more than 200,000-plus residents can’t muster up more than one candidate? Lack of public awareness? Barriers too high for folks without money and political connections to run? There’s something troubling about canceled elections.

On the other hand, thank goodness no one wants to run for the SMUD board. The board made the news back when people were fighting over the Rancho Seco Nuclear Generating Station, when rates were rising, the workforce was demoralized and the board was dysfunctional.

Then came the S. David Freeman era. The Stetson-wearing general manager from the Tennessee Valley turned SMUD around but pissed off quite a few people in the process. Effective, though. Twenty years ago, Freeman handed off the GM gig to lawyer Jan Schori, and it’s been smooth—if somewhat boring—sailing ever since. SMUD is quietly recognized for its efficient system of “policy governance,” high customer-satisfaction rankings and low rates. Earlier this year, SMUD counsel Arlen Orchard succeeded GM John Di Stasio, and no one noticed. That’s a sign of success. So, hooray for canceled elections?

A quick follow-up on a recent column about the suburbanization of Curtis Park. Right on time comes a report in the Sacramento Business Journal that Curtis Park Village developer Paul Petrovich has confirmed he will build a new Safeway, Pet Extreme and gas station as retail tenants anchoring the important infill project. Petrovich told the journal there’s a “deficit” of grocery stores in the area, and there’s a “real demand” for these tenants.

Well, let’s see: There’s a Raley’s supermarket on Freeport Boulevard less than a mile from the Petrovich site. There’s a Mercado Loco grocery store about half-a-mile away, though that will be closed next year to put in a CVS Pharmacy. Petrovich’s gas station would be less than half-a-mile from a Shell station to the east and less than half-a-mile from yet another gas station to the west. Never mind this is supposed to be an urban-infill site—built next to a light-rail station. Not sure when gas stations started being considered “transit-oriented development.” There is also already a Pet Extreme about a quarter-mile away in the suburban strip mall Petrovich built on Sutterville Road.

Now, there are in fact neighborhoods in Sacramento that have no grocery stores at all and really do need them. Like the empty lot off Del Paso Boulevard, where a few years ago Petrovich promised to build a Fresh and Easy store. The Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency even made a $2 million loan to help it happen. But the store was never built. The neighborhood still has no grocery outlets, and the last Bites heard, Fresh and Easy never repaid the loan. That’s what you call a grocery-store deficit. Curtis Park? Not so much.