Strong mayor, weak press

K.J.'s camp, union keep media from covering public debate

Organizers of a strong-mayor town hall debate at a union hall in Sacramento last week prevented media from entering.

Organizers of a strong-mayor town hall debate at a union hall in Sacramento last week prevented media from entering.

Photo by Raheem F. Hosseini

A town hall meeting designed to vet Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson’s latest push for more power devolved into a free-speech firestorm last week, when those involved blocked reporters from attending.

The March 26 event inside SEIU Local 1000’s union hall downtown was the first strong-mayor debate of the campaign season, seven months before a hotly anticipated November vote on whether to expand the mayor’s role. Banishing media from the “public” forum raised a question echoed indoors and on social media: Was this an early preview of how Johnson might wield greater authority?

“Any time a government is closing any meeting to the public is concerning,” said Emily Grannis, the Jack Nelson Legal Fellow at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit that provides free legal assistance to journalists. Especially when said meeting has to do with increasing a public official’s authority, she added. “That rings all sorts of alarm bells.”

The Sacramento branch of SEIU, a labor union made up of state employees, billed last week’s debate as an “educational town hall” featuring a “panel of experts.” To be sure, the panel seated three Capitol all-stars: Johnson and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg arguing in favor of a strong-mayor initiative, and former Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo taking the opposing view.

While panelists mixed it up with each other and fielded audience questions on the wisdom of installing an executive-mayor form of government with new budgetary and personnel authority, a different kind of debate ensued just outside the packed union hall.

That’s where two Sacramento reporters, including one from SN&R, were denied access.

Word of the media blackout came from three different union representatives, including SEIU communications director Marianne von Nordeck, who explained that the event was open to the public, yet closed to the press.

Reporters argued that this was a paradox. For all the city residents who couldn’t attend the evening’s debate, the press is their access, they said.

Pressed to respond, von Nordeck said the decision to block media was arrived at through a consensus of the panel, and that the union would permit entry if participants approved.

Informed of this, Joshua Wood, head of the mayor’s pro-arena coalition, The4000, declined a reporter’s request to be admitted with a two-word text message: “Sorry bro.”

By this time, Sacramento Bee reporter Ryan Lillis had taken to Twitter to explain the predicament: “Stuck on the sidewalk outside SEIU strong mayor forum … sounds like mayor’s campaign made call for no media.”

In response, attendee Lisa Ouellette began live-tweeting the debate, critiquing the mayor’s justifications for the power grab in the process: “KJs life story, now. How this relates to strong mayor, IDK.”

And: “[KJ] suggests we should just ’try this on’ for 6 years. How about we do that after KJs reign, then?”

The audience leveled penetrating questions, as well, asking the mayor, “what’s so broken that needs fixing?” and whether Johnson’s ability to fire people will include “due process” protections, according to Ouellette’s Twitter feed.

Reached a day after the debate, Fargo said the mayor failed to make his case for greater authority, even though he had apparently picked the time and venue. “It was very clear from the turnout that the public has a strong interest in the strong mayor proposal, but not strong support,” she said via email. “I understand the early timing and location was driven by Kevin Johnson and his supporters.”

While Johnson’s office didn’t return multiple requests for comment, two other big-name panelists told SN&R they didn’t approve of the media prohibition.

Steinberg, who has his own political fires to put out as leader of a scandal-ridden Senate, had no inkling that the media would be excluded, said the state Democrat’s spokesman. “Mr. Steinberg expected the press to be there,” Rhys Williams told SN&R the following day.

Fargo, unseated by Johnson in 2008, said there was no consensus to keep the press out, and laid that decision at the feet of SEIU and Johnson. “If there was an agreement, it must have been with Johnson or his staff,” she said. “I’m not sure what the motivation was for SEIU in keeping the media out; they said this was a way to educate their members. I can only assume that Kevin Johnson wants to control the message or is testing arguments and didn’t want early coverage.”

von Nordeck declined to go on the record with reporters.

Brian K. Landsberg, a constitutional-law professor with the University of Pacific McGeorge School of Law, said proving the mayor’s involvement would be key to leveling a First Amendment challenge. “If one could prove that the mayor caused the exclusion and did so under color of his office, there might be a viable argument, but that would be hard to prove,” he said. “So while the exclusion of the press seems heavy-handed and bad PR, I don’t see a First Amendment ground for challenging it.”

Five months ago, the Sacramento City Council narrowly agreed to place a new strong-mayor proposal on the November ballot. It would elevate the mayor to chief-executive status—able to propose budgets, apply new veto powers and limit the council’s access to the city manager, whom the mayor would appoint.