Open the meetings

There used to be a little placard often seen in office workers’ cubicles throughout the land. It read: “Sometimes I feel like a mushroom. I’m kept in the dark, and I’m covered with horse manure.”

It was difficult not to be reminded of that little placard last week when news surfaced that city officials had excluded the public from future meetings of the committee dealing with K Street redevelopment plans. In a cynical ploy to avoid legal action, the council voted unanimously to reword the original resolution that created the committee in order to skirt the Brown Act, a sunshine law that requires that the public’s business be conducted in public. Basically, council members sided with Wendy Saunders, Sacramento’s economic development director, who argued that K Street Selection Committee meetings need not be open to the public, because they will include discussions of the proposed development teams’ financial status and capital holdings.

It is difficult to imagine just why there would be such a powerful need to keep such information in darkness, especially when developers stand to gain from tax breaks, but the desire to keep it from the light of public scrutiny has prompted an extraordinary effusion of manure in order to justify the subversion of the Brown Act.

In a report to the council, Saunders defended excluding the public from the process thusly: “Staff intended to have the Agency approve the proposal review process only in the sense that the Agency was comfortable with the process and not in the sense that the Agency was adopting and establishing the process.”

Got that? If not, you shouldn’t be surprised. It’s doubtful that anyone was meant to understand those words.

An attorney for the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency also defended the closed meetings by arguing that the K Street redevelopment committee had a “quasi-judicial” status that excluded it from the provisions of the Brown Act. Nearly anytime a lawyer resorts to Latinate words like “quasi,” there’s a high probability that manure is being spread. Anyway, just consider what would have happened last year if the council’s attempt to bring movie theaters downtown had been undertaken behind closed doors. (Hint: The Tower Theatre likely would be history already.)

K Street is the very heart of our downtown. What happens there will determine the character and the identity of Sacramento far into the future. Revitalization of K Street is a process akin to a heart transplant for a city badly in need of one. To extend that analogy, it is essential that the patient be apprised of the operation about to be performed—the risks, the prognosis and the costs. It is wholly inappropriate for developers, three appointed “citizen representatives” and a handful of local politicians to plan this surgery in private.

“What’s going on here?” That was the question raised by Terry Francke, a lawyer for watchdog group Californians Aware, in response to all the manure being spread to justify keeping the patient in the dark. Whether or not anything nefarious is happening, the suspicion of misconduct is bound to surface when plans for such an operation seek the shadows and when the language to justify the darkness is, itself, so opaque.