Sacramento needs an ethics commission with teeth

The League of Women Voters and Eye on Sacramento have scheduled several community meetings to gather public input on potential ethics reforms at City Hall. All meetings start at 6:30 p.m. The dates are: February 26 at Artisan Building (1901 Del Paso Blvd.); March 12 at South Natomas Library (2901 Truxel Rd.); March 25 at Robbie Waters Pocket-Greenhaven Library (7335 Gloria Dr.); April 8 at North Natomas Library (4660 Via Ingoglia); and April 23 at Belle Cooledge Library (5600 South Land Park Dr.).

It could be worse. We might have a governor who is forced to resign because of ethical lapses—like our neighbor to the north—or a governor who goes to jail for trying to hold a Senate seat hostage—as was the case in Illinois.

But just because it’s not that bad doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods.

California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, established in 1975 as a result of the Political Reform Act of 1974, has done some fine work of late—despite the recent resignations of the chief enforcement officer and the general counsel. Among recent cases, the FPPC levied heavy fines on out-of-state political operatives who used dark money to influence an Irvine City Council race, and on the manager of the Central Basin Water District Board for accepting gifts from a consultant he’d hired on behalf of the agency.

We need that kind of enforcement, and can only urge that whoever is hired to replace outgoing chief of enforcement Gary Winuk—who prosecuted 350 cases last year—be as zealous as he has been in seeking out those political forces who would abuse the system for their personal wealth and power. He’s done an excellent job, one that we desperately need to have done well, for without the FPPC’s enforcement powers, we have nothing but foxes in the henhouse.

And with that, we turn our attention to local politics.

While the FPPC can extend its reach to local politics—and has, in fact, fined Mayor Kevin Johnson for improper handling of behest payments—a number of major cities have ethics commissions that operate locally to ensure that elected and appointed officials are operating within the purview of their offices and are not playing fast and loose with public money or private fundraising.

We need a city ethics commission with subpoena and enforcement power.

Voters and taxpayers need to be assured that there is a watchdog in place, especially when so much of the city’s money is spent on development that will benefit private interests.

We applaud the League of Women Voters for taking up this task, along with Eye on Sacramento and the other citizen groups that have expressed an interest, and City Councilman Steve Hansen, who has already spoken up in favor of such a commission.

Now, we urge our readers to make sure that all the city’s elected officials know we want ethics enforcement that counts. It needs investigative and enforcement powers, and it needs to be funded and staffed in such a fashion that it is above politicking from any direction.

It’s not enough to say “transparent” a lot. In order to actually have transparent, ethical government, someone needs to be keeping an eye on things—and that someone needs to have the necessary tools to do a good job. We urge its speedy creation, and look forward to its work.