On Kevin Johnson and Michelle Rhee’s latest power moves

Some call the mayor and his wife the next Bill and Hillary

When we checked in a couple weeks ago, Sacramento’s Michelle Rhee was coming back to help run husband Kevin Johnson’s St. HOPE charter schools. It’s since been confirmed that she’ll also be stepping away from leadership of StudentsFirst, the education-reform lobbying group she began in 2010. In a memo to staff, Rhee explained she wanted to spend more time supporting Johnson’s career.

Perhaps that is because StudentsFirst fell far short of the $1 billion that Rhee boasted she would raise to elect anti-teacher-union lawmakers around the country. And Bites suspects that Rhee’s anti-labor, teach-to-the-test brand of education reform was just getting too toxic to be effective anymore.

Then again, toxic may be no big deal for Rhee. While ministering to her husband’s career and running his charter schools, she’s also taken a gig serving on the board of the Scotts Miracle-Gro Company.

Scotts is in the business of selling environment-damaging synthetic fertilizers and weed killers, like Roundup. In 2012, the company was hit with $12.5 million in penalties for violating federal pesticide laws. Among the violations was selling poisoned bird seed.

Is it at all weird that our mayor pitches Sacramento as the “Farm to Fork” capital and as a sustainable green-tech-loving “Emerald Valley,” while Rhee does marketing work for a multinational chemical company? Yes, of course it’s weird. But very Sacramento.

Rhee’s job shuffle stoked new speculation about Johnson’s future career path. The news site Politico even mused that Johnson might be planning a run for U.S. Senate or for governor. The Sacramento Bee also went on at length about the dynamism of the “bi-coastal power couple,” comparing them to Bill and Hillary Clinton.

But consider that any bid for higher office is going to mean facing a kind of media attention very different from what he’s used to here in Sacramento. At that higher level, there are at least a few professional bullshit detectors out there covering campaigns, some who won’t be starstruck. They will look again at the wince-inducing transcripts of conversations that Phoenix police recorded between Johnson and the then-16-year-old friend he called “Whiskey.” They will revisit the unpleasantness of the federal investigations into Johnson’s misuse of AmeriCorps funds. And consider the other material that a well-funded adversary with lots of money for opposition research will undoubtly churn up. Maybe the larger California electorate will be as blasé about Johnson’s past weirdness as the locals have been. Maybe not.

It’s been a while since we’ve heard from local government-watchdog group Eye on Sacramento. Its latest project is to try and improve citizen access to Sacramento city government. A report from late July complained that the city’s 311 call center is understaffed, and that it’s hard to find the right person in City Hall to deal with a citizen’s problem. “Wait times of 10 minutes or more are both common and unacceptable,” says Eye on Sacramento’s Craig Powell of the 311 backlog.

The city’s 311 manager, Chris Hobson, acknowledged the issue, saying, “We are aware and certainly agree that the current 311 wait times can be too long, especially at certain times of the day.” He said that staffing has remained flat, even though call volume is up, and said the city is looking at changes to staff schedules and fixes like “virtual queuing” to let callers receive a call back instead of waiting on the phone.

But Eye on Sacramento may have something even more useful. Using the California Public Records Act, the group got hold of a “hidden directory” with the actual names and phones numbers of city employees.

“By using the city directory, a citizen can easily identify and then directly call the actual human being who is responsible for running the city office that deals with the issue of concern to that citizen,” Powell explained.

Unless and until the city posts the city directory on the city website, you can find it at www.eyeonsacramento.com.

Interestingly, Sacramento city is one of just 46 local governments in the country recognized by the federal government for its “open data” efforts.

Last month, Sacramento County joined the club, introducing the Sacramento County Open Data Portal to open government data and “increase transparency, citizen engagement and innovation.” Go to www.data.saccounty.net—or www.data.cityofsacramento.org for the city’s data portal—to download all sorts of spreadsheets with crime statistics, business permits, traffic information, census data, vendor payments, you name it. For civic-minded folks with programming skills, the open-data API is available, too. These are must-bookmark sites for engaged citizens, journalists, citizen-journalists and armchair analysts alike. If you find anything interesting, please share.