They spent our money on what?

Here’s how local politicians spend their discretionary funds

Web Extra
We’ve only highlighted a few of the projects and expenses paid for out of the council discretionary funds. Click here to view the entire reports.

You can think of it as the community chest, or as a local government slush fund. Each Sacramento City Council member, including the mayor, has their own special taxpayer-funded account, which they can spend on pretty much whatever they please.

These discretionary funds get little public scrutiny. Whether it’s a $7 lunch at Panda Express, $1,000 donated to a local charity or nearly $100,000 spent on a local teen center, none of this money requires a public hearing or a council vote.

Still, it’s your money, so we thought you might like to know how it’s being spent.

These special funds come in two parts.

The first is the actual discretionary fund, which is just $55,000 per year per council member. (It was $60,000, but budget cuts took a bite out of the funds last year.) On top of that, each council member can accrue tens of thousands of dollars more every year in what are called “wireless funds.” This is money that comes from cell phone towers located in each council member’s district. The fees paid by the wireless companies to put their big, ugly cell towers on public property are spent by council members in the surrounding areas for neighborhood projects, charities and community events.

“We get about 1,000 solicitations every year. Schools, nonprofits, you name it,” said Councilman Rob Fong. The money from both funds benefits dozens of organizations and institutions every year, and has the added benefit of boosting the council member’s popularity.

Of course, these are small pots of money compared to the city’s general fund (which even in these lean years is nearly $300 million). But this is “discretionary” spending, so the council members don’t need to ask for anyone’s permission to spend it. The requests do have to go through the city Department of Finance, but they are rarely turned down.

But while the spending may be at the council member’s discretion, it’s still a matter of public record. So SN&R looked at the expense reports for 2008 and 2009. We’ve highlighted the stuff that we thought seemed particularly worthy, especially expensive or even a little dubious.

Mayor Kevin Johnson

In March of this year, the mayor’s office reported a trip to Washington, D.C., that cost $555 in airfare, $15 in bag charges, and $143 for an overnight stay at the William Lewis House. The William Lewis House which bills itself on its Web site as “Washington DC’s premier gay bed and breakfast.” It’s an interesting choice for the mayor, given, well, everything.

But don’t get any queer ideas about the mayor; we know now that he’s engaged to be married to D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. In fact, Rhee had traveled to Sacramento just before this junket to speak at the mayor’s education summit. And he’s made several trips between Sacramento and D.C. since getting elected. So was this particular trip, on the city’s dime, business or pleasure?

Well, it turns out that these travel expenses were actually for the mayor’s chief of staff, Kunal Merchant, who traveled to D.C. to attend a White House meeting on federal stimulus funds for cities. The Lewis House happened to have a room available, and, according to the mayor’s office, Merchant is not gay. Not that there would be anything wrong with that.

While reporting this item, SN&R learned that, unlike his predecessor, Johnson has decided to pay for all of his own travel out of his own pocket. Sounds good, right? But when we asked just how many trips the mayor had made to D.C. since getting elected, we were told, “Our office does not track the mayor’s private travel.”

Johnson dramatically increased spending on “intern parking” compared to his predecessor, sticking taxpayers with a $6,000 bill. And the mayor spent $831 on “flat panel TV floor stands,” for use in the mayor’s third-floor bullpen. Because nothing says “world-class city” and “world-class mayor” like a big-ass TV.

District 1, Ray Tretheway

City Councilman Tretheway is a lover of the arts, at least according to his expense reports.

He used his fund to sponsor the annual Sacramento French Film Festival, for $370. He also spent $800 on tickets to Crocker’s annual art auction, and $250 for tickets to the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra’s Masked Ball on the Boulevard event. Tretheway also maintained a membership to the Crocker Art Museum Association with discretionary moneys, at the “Director’s Circle, Patron level” for $1,250 a year. As the council member for the area, Tretheway serves as an ex-officio member of the Crocker Art Museum board of directors. And you can’t join the board without making a hefty donation.

That’s great for the Crocker, and not too bad for the council member, since the membership includes invitations to several special events and free admission to about 100 museums around the country. Apparently, access to a public expense account is a good way to rub elbows with a better class of folks.

Of course, there’s plenty to spread around on the little people. Tretheway spent $1,750 to sponsor the North Natomas Little League, another $200 to support “safe and sober graduation night” at Inderkum High School and $600 to district libraries for materials for special-needs kids. And while Ray supports fancy French cinema, he also spent $500 on a “Free Family Film Festival” for the hoi polloi at Natomas Marketplace.

Tretheway’s biggest ticket item was more than $30,000 from his cell tower account (see “Towers of spending power,” SN&R Sidebar, page 23) which went to support the Stanford Settlement, which runs a teen center, a senior center and a children’s day camp serving the north Sacramento and Natomas communities.

Tretheway’s office noted that the councilman cut back on his travel expenses in these tough budget times. Sort of. The District 1 rep decided to attend the annual Capitol-to-Capitol (usually just called Cap-to-Cap) event this year, the annual lobbying pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., organized by the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce. But instead of billing the $3,500 to his city account, Tretheway got Regional Transit and the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency (he serves on the boards of both) to reimburse the city almost $2,200 for his travel.

District 2, Sandy Sheedy

As much as Ray Tretheway loves the arts, City Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy loves the cops. She spent $500 from her account for Police Chief Al Najera’s retirement dinner in January 2008, and $1,000 for another retirement dinner held by the Sacramento Police Officers Association (in honor of other old cops) in February 2008. Then there’s nearly $2,000 to Massa Peal catering company for a “public safety barbecue,” and another $1,000 to sponsor the Grant Union High School Criminal Justice Academy, and $75 to spray-wash the police memorial in Woodlake Park. That’s just some of Sheedy’s police- and public-safety-related expenses.

But while Sacramento’s finest get a lot of love from Sheedy, it turns out she has a lot more love to give. Like $3,000 paid to Puppy Love Rescue for spay-and-neuter programs, and $1,000 to the Prime Time Boxing Club for youth scholarships. One thing that we learned from Sheedy’s reports is that council members can bank their discretionary funds, year after year, for special projects.

Sheedy transferred about $170,000 that she had built up into her 2009 account. That allowed her to do some big things in her district.

She spent $37,000 to build shade structures at the Harmon Johnson Elementary School and a total of $127,000 for the Mutual Assistance Network, a nonprofit based in Del Paso Heights that offers career counseling, parent support groups and a community garden, among other programs. About $94,000 of that money went to sponsor The Spot, a teen center located inside the Robertson Community Center on Norwood Avenue.

District 3, Steve Cohn

City Councilman Cohn’s expenditures have a bit of a green theme. He gave about $1,500 from his discretionary fund to sponsor Earth Day events, and another $1,500 to the Sierra Club for its participation in the River City Run.

Cohn also did some traveling with his money. He spent $2,600 for a study mission (organized by the Asian Pacific Chamber of Commerce) to Vancouver to look at that city’s economic development programs, housing policy and transportation system.

Cohn’s most significant charge was helping pay for the McKinley Park Rose Garden Master Plan. He paid out $18,184 in 2009 for that project, which will ultimately cost more than $200,000. But Cohn hopes his contribution will leverage private funds to replace the irrigation system, make the garden ADA compliant and replace rose bushes that are “at the end of their usable life cycle.” The garden was last renovated in 1973. Cohn also shelled out $50,000 to resurface the McKinley Park tennis courts.

District 4, Rob Fong

Naturally, the councilman from Land Park parlays his discretionary fund into a little more time on golf links.

Fong spent $1,000 for the Golf and Guitars fundraiser benefiting the Make Wish Foundation, $2,500 for the Mikuni Charitable Foundation Golf Classic, $5,000 for the Asian Pacific Chamber of Commerce Bamboo Classic and another $650 went to the Asian/Pacific Bar Association of Sacramento Golf Tournament. All are charitable events.

Fong, who is Chinese-American, says he gets hit up for dough by the Sacramento Asian community pretty regularly. He gave $5,500 to the CAPITAL Foundation (an umbrella organization for local Asian and Pacific Islander nonprofits), $500 to the Sacramento Asian Peace Officers Association and $500 to the Sacramento Chinese American Council.

A couple of small expenditures that caught our eye; Fong spent $200 sponsoring the Crocker Riverside PTA talent show and another $200 to the Crocker Riverside PTA for “staycation events.” Not big expenses, but they got us wondering: Why the Crocker Riverside PTA, and not, say, the Jedediah Smith PTA, another elementary school in Fong’s district? Well, Fong is a Crocker alum, and he has a child in school there, too. Fong also has close ties to the Land Park Pacific Little League, which he gave $15,000 for field renovation. He was a Land Park All Star in 1971.

Fong also spent $5,000 on the Vancouver study mission, and more than $7,000 in 2008 for travel expenses (for him and his district director) related to the annual Cap-to-Cap event. Finally, in April of 2008, Fong spent $80 renting a bunny suit for Easter.

District 5, Lauren Hammond

City Councilwoman Lauren Hammond used some of her district cash to do something we’ve all been meaning to do, but just haven’t gotten around to. She sent $35 to KVIE for a membership renewal and $50 for a membership to Capital Public Radio. Unlike some of her colleagues on the council who have high-paying day jobs, Hammond relies entirely on her city council gig for her income. Still, some of that $52,000 probably could support local public broadcasting. After all, that’s only $7 a month.

But Hammond says it’s clearly a district expense. “I have been told by constituents that they find the programming very informative.”

More clear-cut are Hammond’s $7,500 support for the Colonial Park Arts and Recreation Effort and the $1,250 to the Sacramento Local Conservation Corps for youth programs. Another $8,000 was transferred to the city Office of Youth Development for its Juvenile Outreach Program. Also in the youth mentorship area, Hammond plunked down $469 for 50 copies of Makin’ It: the Hip-Hop Guide to True Survival.

Some of Hammond’s bigger outlays included $2,000 to the Franklin Boulevard Business Association for landscaping on the boulevard, and a little more than $20,000 for the Oak Park Summer Concert Series (that covers 2008 and 2009). Hammond also spent $1,500 for a nice HP LaserJet printer. You can’t run a city council district without printing stuff.

We also noticed $775 to Lang and Associates to mediate the Curtis Park Village development fight. We wondered if this turned out to be wasted money, but Hammond replied, “It has helped, but it is taking time to actually schedule mediation.”

Hammond also spent $3,500 for the annual Cap-to-Cap trip, but charged it to the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District and Regional Transit, where she served as a board member.

District 6, Kevin McCarty

The youngest guy on the council, City Councilman Kevin McCarty is the council’s resident tech freak. McCarty records $1,362 for a Vostro 1310 laptop computer, $372 for a Palm Treo (for his assistant Maria Alvarez) and $147 for various cables, headsets, memory sticks and software. Apparently, the District 6 folks are hard on their gear. McCarty forked out $68 for “cell phone repair.” And the expense reports list $253 for a Sony Cyber-shot digital camera in April of 2008. Then in October of 2008, there’s a $369 bill for “replacement camera,” also a Sony Cyber-shot. “We had a camera stolen,” said McCarty. “We had a rash of thefts in City Hall a couple years back.”

He spent $329 to the e-mail marketing firm Constant Contact for an e-mail newsletter that McCarty sends out to his constituents every month, and $94 to the company NewsTrak to “purchase TV clip of council member interview.”

In March 2008, McCarty shelled out $1,400 in travel expenses to Southern California on a fact-finding trip related to the Sacramento Natural Gas Storage project in McCarty’s district. The funds paid for his travel as well as his assistant, and the travel expenses of neighborhood activist Constance Slider and attorney Colin Bailey, who have since become vocal opponents of the project.

Obviously, McCarty does his homework, as evidenced by a charge for $34.54 to Amazon for the book National Civic Review: Model City Charter Reform for a New Century. Amazon lists the book as just $15, so hopefully he got an extra copy for the mayor. McCarty’s biggest discretionary expense was $30,000 to the Sacramento City Unified School District for the “Operation College” program at Hiram Johnson High School.

District 7, Robbie Waters

City Councilman Robbie Waters dropped $1,785 on the “waste-to-energy” fact-finding trip to Japan. This was apparently related to a proposal that the city fund a “plasma arc gasification” plant that could melt garbage and turn it into fuel for generating electricity.

Apparently the trip was something of a waste, since the council spiked the waste-to-energy idea earlier this year, deciding the technology, and the company pitching the exotic gadget, were a little shaky.

Speaking of waste, Waters spent $133 on “dog waste disposal bags” for annual National Night Out events. Then there’s paid $70 to David and Tony Marvelli to be trumpeters at the May 2008 groundbreaking for the Robbie Waters Pocket-Greenhaven Library. (Waters was key in wrangling the $15 million it took to build the library, even plowing a bunch of his discretionary budget into the project in previous years.) Waters joined his council colleagues on last year’s Cap-to-Cap event, at a cost of $3,500, and spent $2,200 on police retirement dinners in 2008 and 2009.

District 8, Bonnie Pannell

A couple of big-ticket items for Councilwoman Bonnie Pannell’s district cash fund include $10,000 buying Christmas presents for local kids, and $2,600 to JC Penney for buying back-to-school backpacks for District 8 children.

Pannell also spent $10,000 for operations at The Basement, a teen lounge in the Pannell Community Center (named after Pannell’s late husband, former District 8 Councilman Sam Pannell).

But the biggest bills in District 8 went to pay for the Meadowview Jazz and Cultural Festival. The festival costs close to $100,000 to put on, much of that is private money.

In 2008, Pannell spent about $50,000 on the festival, including stage lights, portable toilets, fees for musicians, the sound system, sodas and security, (including $4,600 to the Members in Black security company). That’s one hell of a party. But the economic downturn meant a downsized Jazz festival in 2009. Pannell managed to pull it off this year for just $26,936.

Former Mayor Heather Fargo

Since we went back two years, pulling the expense reports for 2008 and 2009, we also decided to review the last year of Mayor Heather Fargo’s tenure. As with the other council members, you can glean something of her priorities from her spending. For example, Fargo was the only member of the council that we came across who paid $200 for a “Magic Show for Earth Day.”

Fargo’s environmentalism was also reflected in her $500 sponsorship of an event with Solar Cookers International and another $500 donation to the Sacramento Valley Conservancy. Much of Fargo’s spending reflected her many ceremonial duties: $200 to the Chinese New Year Culture Association for Chinese New Year celebration, $1,000 to Loaves & Fishes for the 2008 Turkey Cook-Off, $700 to sponsor the “Mayor’s Night Out” at Funderland.

Even the little things get reported. Fargo had a $15 subscription to Sacramento Magazine. That’s a much better bargain than the $40 spent on “congratulation cookies for Senator Steinberg,” on the occasion of his becoming President Pro Tem of the California State Senate.

Fargo tended to spend more on travel than her council colleagues—something she was heavily criticized for during the 2008 election campaign. For example, she spent $760 to attend an urban forestry conference in Baltimore, among many other travel expenses.

Some of Fargo’s biggest expenses included $3,000 to the Cathedral Square Homeless Program, and $2,500 in reward money for information leading to the arrest of the person who started the Fort Natomas playground fire.