Ransom, kidnaps and cool experiments

Vallejo innovates while Sacramento plays out like a slightly cliché heist movie

Congratulations, city of Vallejo, which has come through municipal bankruptcy and is now embarking on a cool experiment in people power. Last year, citizens passed a whopping 1-cent sales tax to improve services, and as part of the deal, the people get to decide directly on how to spend a chunk of the money. It’s called participatory budgeting, and last weekend, about 4,000 residents voted for worthy civic causes from a long list nominated by their fellow citizens. It was the first citywide participatory-budgeting project in the country, with a total allocation of $3.2 million.

Potholes and street repairs, lights, parks, and school libraries topped the list of approved projects. School counselors, spaying-and-neutering programs, and street cameras got funded, too.

It’s just a small part of the city’s budget, but there are lots of interesting things going on here, if you’re into policy. The bottom-up approach to setting priorities, the fact that residents as young as 16 get to vote, breaking down the usual silos separating school and city.

Bites mentioned the Vallejo experiment to a couple Sacramento City Council members earlier in the year. No particular interest. Then again, this council doesn’t even like citizens to talk for more than two minutes at council meetings. Giving them a direct say in spending might be asking a bit much.

Plus, don’t the whales already have first dibs on Sacramento’s money? Sometimes Bites worries about sounding like a broken record on this score. “Be careful.” “Don’t believe everything in the sales pitch.” “The numbers don’t really add up.” Blah, blah, blah. Too much? Then again, for every column inch Bites writes urging skepticism, The Sacramento Bee spools out a yard of boosterism.

In the same Sunday edition last week, Bee sports columnist Ailene Voisin wondered whether we should nominate NBA Commissioner David Stern for sainthood or just name a street after him; Marcos Breton wrote his 549th mash note to Mayor K.J., and the news guys did a story about how many pull-ups Vivek Ranadivé can do.

You know, it’s funny. Team Scoopy has scrutinized the construction of the new Bay Bridge in minute detail, literally down to the individual bolt and strand of steel cable. But the rickety arena deal, held together with spit and solder and what Neil deMause calls some “handwavy math,” goes mostly uninvestigated.

And Stern is a saint? More like the leader of a kidnapping ring. “If you want to see your team again, put the money in a bag and do exactly as we say.”

Were the Kings ever really going to Seattle? Only in the event that Sacramento lost its collective mind and refused to pay the ransom. By the time of the NBA board of governors meeting, it felt like Bites was watching a slightly cliché heist movie. You know that montage near the end? When the mark starts flashing back to key plot points and realizing how cleverly he’s been played? Cut then to Stern and K.J. stepping out of their SUVs, meeting in some airplane hangar or warehouse somewhere. They were in on it together the whole time.

Speaking of the long con, back in February, Bites sent a Public Records Act request in to the Sacramento City Unified School District. The idea is to try and better understand how the Sac city school board, superintendent and staff arrived at the decision to close seven schools.

It seems pretty obvious that much of the thinking and planning leading up to the decision to close the schools had happened out of public view. So Bites asked for relevant memos, emails and the like to shed a little more light.

So far, the district has disclosed next to nothing aside from some boilerplate stuff from the district website. Although the California Public Records Act requires the district to provide an estimate of when it will begin to disclose documents, the district has refused. When the district does get around to it, Bites gets the feeling there won’t be much there. It takes a lot longer to think up reasons to withhold stuff than it does to just turn it over.

Other parents and community members have made similar requests; all of these were made about three months ago. That’s now more than twice as long as entire public process that went before the decision to close the seven neighborhood schools.

Would any reasonable person think it takes more than three months to review and redact and largely refuse to turn over some records to a reporter, when it takes just six weeks to decide on a major restructuring of the school system, displacing thousands of students? No, of course not. What the district thinks is reasonable is another matter.