Recuse me!

Eileen Teichert: Short-circuited by K.J.?

Eileen Teichert: Short-circuited by K.J.?

Mayor Kevin Johnson has found a way out of his standoff with City Attorney Eileen Teichert. The two clashed last month over a loan Johnson made to his “strong mayor” ballot campaign. Teichert said the loan created a conflict of interest for Boss Johnson—disqualifying him from an upcoming vote on whether the council should step in and help fix legal flaws in the proposal.

By converting the loan to a “gift,” Johnson may have let himself off the legal hook, technically. But the conflict hardly seems settled.

Earlier this year, Johnson made a $25,000 loan to the group Sacramentans for Accountable Government, the campaign committee pushing his ballot measure. According to campaign reports, the committee was nearly $150,000 in debt, despite hefty donations from developers such as Mark Friedman and Angelo Tsakopoulos.

Teichert told members of the Sacramento City Council that, because of legal flaws in the strong-mayor proposal, the council might need to place a companion measure on the June 2010 ballot. The companion measure would create a mechanism for electing a ninth city council member to replace the mayor. Under the strong-mayor initiative, the mayor would become the city’s top executive and would no longer vote with the council. But the initiative doesn’t spell out the procedure for electing the new member. In a report to the council, Teichert wrote that “The strong Mayor Initiative may be struck down … due to the failure to provide timing in the charter for electing the new Ninth District Council member.”

Now, if the council decides to put a companion measure on the ballot, it could save Sacramentans for Accountable Government a lot of time and money. Otherwise, Johnson is stuck with a potentially critically flawed proposition on the ballot. And that, in turn, could impact the committee’s ability to pay off Johnson’s loan. Voilà, a classic conflict of interest.

But on August 25, Johnson surprised the city attorney and the city council by telling Teichert she was “in error,” and that he would not recuse himself from discussing and voting on the issue. When he was done showing off his legal knowledge, he chided the city attorney for not bringing the issue to the city council’s attention sooner.

When asked by Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy if the city council would be held liable for Johnson’s decision not to recuse himself, Teichert replied, “It’s just a matter of whether you want to facilitate the violation.” The council did not want to facilitate any such thing, and postponed the meeting.

Teichert asked for an “advice letter” from the state Fair Political Practices Commission to back her up. But Johnson short-circuited Teichert’s request, telling the FPPC that he was converting his loan into a gift. No loan means no expectation of getting paid back, and therefore technically no conflict of interest. Pretty smooth.

K.J. may have extracted himself from this particular legal cul-de-sac, but it remains to be seen whether he can swing council support for saving his ballot bacon when the council considers a companion measure on September 15.

Devin Lavelle, spokesman with the Democratic Party of Sacramento County, told Bites that his group is urging a “no” vote.

“This is a private initiative funded by wealthy donors, and they want the city to spend time and money fixing something that they should have gotten right in the first place. It doesn’t seem like a good use of public resources to me.”