Sacramento ponders ethics reform, streetcar

There will be another vote on the streetcar tax in May; good-government reforms eye 2016 ballot

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.).

The effort to bring political reform to City Hall is gaining momentum. Clunie Community Center was packed last Thursday as Eye on Sacramento and the League of Women Voters held the first of several public meetings to air ideas for a new ethics code, political-ethics commission, election-redistricting commission and other reforms.

Some other ideas that came up included giving the public greater access to police records, bringing greater transparency to city labor negotiations and ending the Sacramento City Council’s use of “ad hoc” committees, which meet in secret and don’t comply with public-records laws.

Several members of the public also expressed concern about the city’s recent decision to delete thousands of city emails sometime this spring (see last week’s Bites column, “Garbage excuse for trashing records,” at City Councilman Jeff Harris said he would raise the city’s email-deletion policy for discussion at a future city council meeting. Reporter Joe Rubin also got big applause for his work exposing problems with the city’s expensive water-meter-installation plan (read that story at That reporting was based in part on the kinds of older emails the city now wants to trash.

Many speakers supported the idea of an ethics commission with enforcement power, which most large California cities have, but Sacramento lacks.

However, panelist Peter Scheer with the California First Amendment Coalition warned that ethics commissions sometimes are used as weapons in political disputes. And Kim Nalder, with the project for an informed electorate at Sacramento State, said greater government transparency is great, but many citizens don’t know what local government does or how it works.

Our own mayor, Kevin Johnson, may be a good example of this. Last Saturday, he told an audience gathered at a city budget workshop (according to prolific civic tweeter Thomas Dodson) that “When I ran, I didn’t know the mayor wasn’t in charge of the school budget.”

There’s a lot to think about there. Frankly, Bites doesn’t believe it’s true. K.J. had been in the charter-school business for a long time at the point he ran for mayor. And if there’s one thing that Johnson knows, it’s where the money comes from.

But point made. If a rich and powerful dude like Johnson didn’t know how Sacramento local government works, what chance do the rest of us have?

Sacramento’s streetcar project is rolling forward, following an advisory vote by downtown property owners last week. The Sacramento Bee said downtown property owners in the area of the proposed streetcar project voted “overwhelmingly” in favor of taxing themselves a portion of the construction costs for the new line. It was a “resounding vote of confidence.”

Actually, the vote was 239 property owners in favor, to 282 against. The vote was weighted, so that the votes of big property owners like CIM and the arena developers group counted more. The weighted vote was 66 percent in favor. But only reporting that number obscures the fact that downtown property owners were pretty evenly split on the tax.

And 51 percent of those who received ballots didn’t bother to vote.

A big part of the argument in favor of streetcars is the enormous economic benefit the project is supposed to bring downtown, in the form of increased business and property values. Those estimates appear to rely on studies of the effects that streetcars have had in neighborhoods like Portland, Seattle and Tampa, Fla.

The problem is that the circumstances in those cities were radically different than the circumstances in Sacramento. In each case, those cities introduced streetcars as part of a major makeover of former industrial areas. In Sacramento, streetcars are being added to a built-up downtown core that’s been a lab for one redevelopment experiment or another for more than 50 years. And much of the streetcar route is replacing an existing light-rail service that has been in place for nearly 30 years.

Doesn’t mean there’s no economic benefit. Bites would love to sit down with the experts behind the reports and ask a few questions about the assumptions they are making. But they won’t do it. For about a month now, officials at the Sacramento Area Council of Governments have largely blown off Bites’ questions. Their paid consultant, Strategic Economics, in Berkeley, won’t return calls, either.

In the past, Mike McKeever and his team of planners and analysts at SACOG could be relied on to give the public solid information about the impacts of development and transportation projects. Here, SACOG seems more interested in cheerleading the project than answering important questions.

It’s too bad. There will be another vote on the streetcar tax in May, among registered voters living in the project area. This vote will count. But before that happens, the public deserves more transparency about the costs and benefits of this project.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the numbers of votes for and against the streetcar project. This article has been updated to correct them.