Reform reneged

Hopes dim for political reform at Sacramento City Hall

Photo by Larry Dalton

“The fix was in.”

“The council was in the developer’s pocket all along.”

“Money talks.”

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

It’s a familiar complaint about Sacramento’s local government, one that can be heard just about any time deep-pocketed business interests get their way over the objections of citizens or neighborhood, environmental or other interest groups.

Most recently, there was a tremendous outcry over the Sacramento City Council’s decision to approve a controversial big-box retail project in North Natomas. The council ultimately backpedaled from its decision, after revelations that several councilmembers had been wined and dined, promised pet projects in their own districts or had fund-raisers thrown on their behalf by the project developers.

To many Sacramento political reform advocates, the big-box debacle in North Natomas underscores the need for tighter controls on lobbying and campaign money at City Hall. Two such reforms have been slowly gaining momentum, and will be debated by the City Council early next year.

The first is an ordinance that would provide partial public financing of city elections, in hopes of lessening the need for candidates to raise tens of thousands of dollars from developers, labor unions and other groups with business before the city. The other proposal would require greater disclosure of lobbying activity in City Hall.

Both proposals are the result of a commission set up by the late mayor Joe Serna after Proposition 208, the campaign finance measure passed by California voters in 1996, was tied up in the courts and left Sacramento without any limits on campaign contributions.

So far, the City Council has reinstated contribution limits, although they are among the highest in the nation for local governments. It also passed a law requiring campaign finance to be disclosed online on the city’s Web site. Yet in the years since the Prop. 208 fight, campaign reform advocates have been pushing for more sophisticated measures than simply putting a cap on what candidates can collect from individual donors and groups.

In November 2000, the council stated its intention to enact some form of public financing of campaigns and a lobbying ordinance. But more than a year later, the prospects for each reform appear increasingly dim.

The public financing measure would likely have the greatest impact. It would allow qualifying candidates to receive matching funds from a Campaign Reform Fund if they agree not to spend over a certain amount during their campaigns. City staff is recommending a cap of $60,000 for council candidates and $200,000 for mayoral candidates.

The campaign reform group Common Cause and the Sacramento League of Women Voters are recommending slightly lower limits for council races. Yet reform advocates would be content with the proposed public financing proposal, which will go before a subcommittee of the City Council on January 29.

“We’re not unhappy with it. It’s taken a very long time to get here. But it’s definitely a great start,” said Kris Greenlee, a local organizer for Common Cause.

Greenlee believes that public financing of elections will help take the pressure off local officials to raise huge campaign war chests, and will help councilmembers become less beholden to special interests.

“Public financing is really an insurance policy for the future,” she said. “It’s a guarantee that the council in the future will have a system to abide by that will really ensure a representative democracy.”

Luree Stetson, president of the Land Park Community Association, said the new law would have a big impact on the relative power of developers and neighborhood groups. “I think it would really change the dynamic that exists in one of the most important processes of local government: planning and development.”

Stetson complained that all too often City Councilmembers act in favor of their benefactors, not their constituents, noting, “It is very hard for ordinary people, volunteering their time to compete with that.”

So far, regular big money contributors, such as labor unions and developers, seem to be holding their fire and waiting for a more concrete proposal to come from the city staff. But any public financing proposal is sure to experience stiff opposition from groups like the Sacramento County Taxpayers League.

“Public money should only be used for public safety and public welfare, not for politicians to run their campaigns,” said Joe Sullivan, executive director of the league.

Sullivan isn’t impressed with the arguments that public financing would keep campaign costs down and lead to better government.

“That’s just a way to get into the public trough,” he said, adding that the city, like most local governments, is facing troubled economic times in the near future and this is hardly the time to divert public money from other services.

City officials estimate that a public financing regime would cost the city no less than $500,000 a year, possibly up to $1 million, though reformers say both estimates are too high. The city’s general fund is about $260 million. The cost gives even some supporters pause.

“That’s about ten cops,” concedes Councilman Steve Cohn, who supports public financing and chairs the council’s Law and Legislation Committee (and who was the only member to return SN&R phone calls). Cohn acknowledged that there was little consensus on the council about campaign reform.

“I don’t think there are enough votes on this council,” Cohn said. “It will probably have to be put on the ballot.”

Even if Cohn can convince his fellow councilmembers to put public financing to a vote of the public, the earliest it would appear would be November 2002, well after any incumbents have faced re-election. If the council fails to put the measure on the ballot, reform advocacy groups would have to be gathering signatures for their own ballot measure, largely negating the past year’s work.

Meanwhile, efforts at a strong lobbying ordinance have also suffered major setbacks.

An early version of the ordinance would have required regular disclosure of detailed information about money spent lobbying city officials, both elected and non-elected. The measure would also have required detailed reporting of meetings between lobbyists and public officials. Those supporting the lobbying ordinance hope to bring some “transparency” to local government.

Rick Bettis, who has pushed the proposal for the League of Women Voters, said the public is generally aware of the influence lobbyists have on their elected officials. “But they never know the specifics, and the magnitude of that influence.”

A more transparent government, said Bettis, would empower ordinary folks. “I think we would have a more enlightened and more engaged public if they had this kind of information.”

Although the ordinance was modeled on similar laws already adopted in San Francisco and Los Angeles, many in the business community found the proposed requirements too onerous.

“Overly broad and restrictive” was the description given by David Butler, vice-president of the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce. Butler complained that even the most ordinary activities by his organization, such as attending a dinner and speaking to an elected official, would generate reams of paperwork.

The council’s Law and Legislation Committee agreed and sent the ordinance back to the staff, which produced a version that required paid lobbyists to be registered with the city—with much less stringent requirements on disclosing the nature and expense of their lobbying efforts.

That sat a lot better with lobbyists. “I don’t think a registration ordinance will do any harm,” said land use attorney Gregory Thatch, who represents some of the area’s most prominent developers and is a familiar face around City Hall. At the same time, Thatch said he didn’t see what good it would do either.

“In my case, I don’t think there’s any doubt in anyone’s mind about what I do,” quipped Thatch. “I’m pretty notorious.”

Yet even that streamlined lobbying ordinance didn’t pass muster with the council subcommittee, which sent it back to be further reworked.

“The committee feels that we ought to do a ‘starter’ system,” said Cohn, acknowledging that any lobbying ordinance would not likely go much behind simple registration.

To reformers like Rick Bettis and Kris Greenlee, that’s been discouraging news.

“[The councilmembers] just don’t seem to want to do anything at all,” lamented Greenlee.

And so, perhaps the fix is still in.