The city of Sacramento's ethics commission does no good if it doesn't have good rules to enforce

What's the use of a watchdog without any teeth?

There was a fair bit of self-congratulation at Sacramento City Council last week, following a unanimous vote to move ahead with a package of good-government reforms, including creation of an ethics commission and independent redistricting commission.

“It’s the most sweeping reform any city has ever initiated on its own in the history of California,” said Councilwoman Angelique Ashby.

Not sure about that. I do know the proposal falls far short of the reforms needed to curb the bad behavior we’ve seen at City Hall.

Recent scandals and lawsuits, and public outcry, have brought council members around to support an ethics commission, with dedicated staff and enforcement power.

But the whole point of an ethics commission is to enforce a strong ethics code and strong rules ensuring government transparency. Unfortunately, those items aren’t in this most-sweeping-ever proposal. Sure, we’ll have a new watchdog on the job. But it won’t bark much, unless some changes are made.

The basic plan gives the mayor power to appoint ethics commissioners, with confirmation from the City Council. In other cities, the appointment power is a bit more diffuse, with a city attorney or other officers sharing appointment power.

A bigger problem, I think, is that only judges and law professors will be allowed to serve on the commission. The danger here is that we end up with a commission that considers ethics issues in a narrow, legalistic fashion, and serves to rubber stamp whatever the council wants to do. Call it the Five Frawleys plan.

This is not how other big California cities do it. They have ethics bodies that draw commissioners from a much broader variety of professional backgrounds.

But the real problem with this actually-not-so-sweeping ethics proposal is that it makes no real changes to the city’s woefully deficient ethics and transparency rules.

It does nothing to fix the city’s stupendously dumb and reckless policy on emails. A big part of our city government—the mayor’s office, which sets the city’s policy agenda more than any other office—does its business using “private” email accounts specifically set up to get around the California Public Records Act. That’s unacceptable.

This plan also does nothing to address public frustration about the city’s decision to begin mass deletion of older city emails.

It does nothing to stop council members from taking unlimited amounts of money in “behests” from companies and individuals who have business before City Hall.

It does nothing to prohibit council members from using city employees and city resources to work on noncity business.

It does nothing to curb the City Council’s use of “ad hoc” committees that are closed to the public—like the one that came up with this ethics plan.

In all, it does nothing about the kinds of bad behavior that prompted calls for ethics reform in the first place.

Some council members have griped about the cost of staffing the ethics commission—about $450,000 a year. I’d just remind them of the $700,000 the City Council recently approved to beef up Mayor Kevin Johnson’s staff. That would have not only covered the cost of the ethics commission, it could have mostly restored the $300,000 public financing election fund. That fund, eliminated by the council a few years back, was created to give grassroots candidates a fighting chance.

The League of Women Voters and Common Cause should be commended for negotiating this proposal with some very resistant council members. But they’ve been pretty quiet about its many problems. Another group, Eye on Sacramento, was cut out of negotiations entirely. Pretty troubling on both counts.

And the plan seems to be a done deal, with little chance for improvement.

“Sweeping change isn’t likely because of the compromises and input already recognized in the proposal,” says Ashby.

Compromises and input that happened behind closed doors, unfortunately. Ironically.

An ethics commission does us no good if it doesn’t have good rules to enforce.