Reforming City Hall: New mayor kick-starts ethics revamp, but watchdog group says it needs sharper teeth

Eye on Sacramento threatens to put competing reforms on ballot if local politicians don’t concede to stiffer protections

To hear additional interviews with ethics reform advocates, visit
This is an extended version of a story that ran in the February 23, 2017, issue.

For eight years as Sacramento’s mayor, Kevin Johnson pushed against the boundaries and norms of city government.

Aside from the sexual-harassment accusations against him, he liberally used city resources to bolster his private nonprofit organizations and leveraged his political office to solicit millions of dollars in charitable “behests” for his nonprofits and for his charter schools. And Johnson and his staff used a parallel email network, off of city servers, to avoid public-records requests. He did legal battle with SN&R and the city of Sacramento to keep some of those emails from seeing the light of day.

Now, with Darrell Steinberg in the mayor’s chair, the city may finally move to curb some of the misbehavior that occurred in the Johnson years. The council is expected to consider a set of ethics and transparency reforms in March.

But, after all this time, are the new rules strong enough?

The proposed reforms would, among other provisions, require city email accounts to be used for city work, put an end to the practice of ad hoc council committees that do business behind closed doors, and create a new ethics commission to investigate and take enforcement action against rule breakers.

However, the new rules would also continue to allow unlimited behests and ignore the city’s clean-elections program, which has been unfunded since the last recession.

Paula Lee, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Sacramento County, which joined good-government group Common Cause in negotiating ethics reform with city officials over the last two years, sees much more good than bad in the reform package.

“We think it can be a model for other cities,” she told SN&R.

Craig Powell, president of the local government watchdog group Eye on Sacramento, is less impressed. “I think, frankly, those groups were too quick to grasp a deal, and simply weren’t concerned enough about enacting real reform,” Powell said.

Eye on Sacramento has its own long list of reforms that it wants to see adopted. If it can’t muscle them through, the group may try to put a stronger ethics reform measure on the ballot in 2018.

Throughout his tenure as mayor, Johnson was preoccupied with trying to increase the power and budget of the mayor’s office. As part of his final strong-mayor bid—Measure L in 2014—he hoped to win over critics with promises of a new transparency code and ethics rules.

Voters still said no. But in the aftermath of Measure L, Eye on Sacramento and the League of Women Voters began to build support for an ethics commission with some enforcement power, and for reforms of the city’s transparency rules. They also supported an independent redistricting commission to draw council districts, similar to the one that draws districts for the state Legislature. The groups hosted a series of public workshops with expert panels and began crafting recommendations to the city.

At the same time, Johnson and his supporters on the Sacramento City Council formed an “ad hoc” ethics reform committee that, ironically, met mostly in private. When the committee did hold meetings to solicit public input, only a handful of residents attended.

Eventually, the city and the community groups began to negotiate with each other, though in 2015 there was a schism and Eye on Sacramento was sidelined in talks with the city. “We wouldn’t go along with a deal for a deal’s sake, so consequently the city wouldn’t talk to us,” Powell said.

Ultimately, the League and Common Cause also balked at the reforms that the city proposed in 2015, which did nothing to address behaviors such as private emails, behests and secret meetings.

And so ethics reform came to a standstill for several months.

Fast forward to January of this year, when Steinberg kicked ethics reform back into gear.

Presiding over his first council meeting as mayor, Steinberg said completing the ethics reform effort was a top priority. “I’ve been asked, ‘Why this as a first order of business?’ Everything we want to do that is important, that is groundbreaking, that is far-reaching, depends on having the public’s trust,” he explained.

Steinberg proposed beefing up the ethics reform package that had stalled out with several new provisions. First, he asked for elimination of private ad hoc committees, reasoning that all official meetings should be done in the open.

Next, he proposed rules requiring that city employees use city email accounts to do only city business, or at least have emails dealing with city business be copied to city servers. “Man, if we learned nothing else in this country in 2016, about the difference between public and private email servers, I hope we can adopt this,” Steinberg said.

He was referring to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who was plagued by accusations of corruption stemming from her decision to use private email servers and accounts during her time as U.S. secretary of state.

But Steinberg could just as easily have been referring to the legal mess created by his predecessor’s use of private emails.

Steinberg has also proposed that council members provide public notice of any amendments they intend to introduce before council meetings, for the public to be able to review. And he suggested that public-comment letters on council agenda items be posted online.

The different pro-reform groups agree that Steinberg’s entrance has moved ethics reform along significantly.

But after two years of foot-dragging, Powell says the city is now rushing to pass a flawed ethics package. He says the proposed ethics commission won’t truly be independent because commission members would still be appointed by the mayor and city council—the very people the commission is supposed to keep an eye on. The group is also proposing that the commission have authority to ask the Sacramento Superior Court to remove corrupt officials.

The watchdog group also wants to see more information disclosed to the public about negotiations between the city and its employee labor unions.

The ethics reform package makes little effort to deal with the influence of money on Sacramento politics.

For example, one of Steinberg’s proposals would require more timely disclosure of “behests” on behalf of council members, when the person or company giving money has business before the council.

But the new ethics rules would still allow unlimited amounts of money to be given to nonprofits favored by, associated with or even controlled by council members. In this way, anyone looking to curry favor with council members can give far more money than is allowed under local campaign finance rules.

Lee, with the League of Women Voters, said capping behests has been “recommended over and over by the public.” But she said there’s nothing that can be done legally to limit the payments.

The proposed new ethics code also appears to be silent on the issue of blending public resources and private nonprofits, which was common in the Johnson years.

The city council is also reviewing the city’s campaign finance rules, as part of the ethics overhaul. A couple of council members, Jeff Harris and Eric Guerra, asked about the city’s long-neglected “public financing” program, created to help grassroots candidates without access to large quantities of campaign cash. The council eliminated funding for the program during the budget cutbacks of the last recession.

The city budget has since recovered, but the council has chosen not to restore funding for the program, which conceivably could help underfunded challengers run against incumbents.

The League of Women Voters and Common Cause both support public financing wholeheartedly. But they say it’s not going to happen this time. “The agenda that’s been bitten off has been pretty massive, so we’re not expecting major changes to that ordinance,” said Nicolas Heidorn, of Common Cause.

Lee added that, while the ethics package could go further, the reforms proposed are “really, incredibly remarkable.”

“An independent redistricting commission, a sunshine ordinance, a five-member ethics commission with enforcement power? It’s worth waiting for,” she added.

Powell says it’s worth waiting a little longer for a better reform package. His group is considering a 2018 ballot measure to ask voters to pass stronger reforms. “We’re coming to a fork in the road here.”