Paper watchdogs

Lawyers, lobbyists dominates applications for Sacramento’s new ethics commission

Fourteen lawyers walk into a room. It’s not the beginning of a joke, it’s the beginning of the city of Sacramento’s new ethics commission.

On October 30, council members Angelique Ashby, Steve Hansen and Larry Carr conducted interviews for five open seats on the new oversight body aimed at holding local officials accountable. Two years in the making, the Sacramento Ethics Commission is tasked with investigating complaints against elected and appointed city officials.

The voluntary job ended up drawing applicants who were mostly attorneys and lobbyists. And only four of the 25 hopefuls weren’t in the legal or union professions, or employed by state government.

Applicants for the Sacramento Ethics Commission appeared before the Personnel and Public Employees Committee, which will in turn send nominations to the mayor for final appointment. The mayor’s office hasn’t announced that timeline yet.

One of the reasons so many legal eagles lined up at the podium was that the city specifically asked that three of the five seats be filled by residents “with a background in law, ethics or local government.” The other two seats are designed to be filled with “a member representing the general public.”

During the interviews, the applicants were called before the dais to make two-minute presentations as they watched a red digital clock counting down. When their time was up, Ashby, Hansen and Carr could ask follow-up questions.

Applicants from the legal profession included Amanda Kelly, an attorney at the state Office of Legislative Counsel; Derek Cressman, a former secretary of state candidate and Common Cause attorney; Emily Rodriguez, senior counsel for the Fair Political Practices Commission; and Linda Ng, a former attorney at the Department of Consumer Affairs and California Department of Fair Housing and Employment. Noted McGeorge School of Law professor Mary-Beth Moylan, whom Hansen pointed out had taught both him and Ashby, also applied for a position.

A few applicants, including Lexi Howard, acknowledged they were both lawyers and lobbyists. “Some would say that’s two strikes against me,” Howard said lightheartedly, adding that she had experience working alongside members of the Department of Business Oversight and state Commission on Judicial Performance.

One applicant never subjected to lawyer jokes was retired journalist Alvin Block, who spent 22 years covering Sacramento for the California Journal magazine.

“I’ve been fascinated by the behavior of public officials,” Block told the committee. “I’ve been interested in that place where the letter of the law and the spirit of the law often collide.”

Another applicant, human resources specialist Blayne Flora, said he had a straight-forward reason for wanting to bring his years of employee investigation skills to bear on the new commission.

“I think there’s less than full confidence in public officials,” Flora said. “And the public deserves to have a higher level of confidence.”

Among the handful of would-be commissioners who weren’t attorneys were a neuroscientist, an engineer, a children’s pastor and a social worker.

“I guess I’m the oddball out of all [of] them, because I don’t have a law degree,” said Virginia Fair Amitani, a retired California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation teacher. “But, being in the prison system, there are pressures to influence decisions, and I’m accustomed to that.”

After the meeting, Fair Amitani told SN&R that her interest in serving on the commission was prompted by her final assignment with the Department of Corrections, where she worked alongside white-collar criminals housed in special protection. She observed a general attitude that their actions were somehow not as bad as others in the clink.

“These guys would come into the yard and be so afraid, but the reality is their actions affected so many people,” Fair Amitani recalled. “When you commit crimes like that, you’re taking away food, clothing and education from others, and it has a profound effect on the community.”