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  • MANNY CRISOSTOMO / Bee file, 2010

    Bill Camp, Sacramento Central Labor Council executive secretary, is likely to run for a proposed city charter commission, though he opposes the panel plan.

  • Foon Rhee

Foon Rhee: City charter panel will be a special interest slugfest

Published: Sunday, Jul. 15, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 6E
Last Modified: Wednesday, May. 29, 2013 - 8:52 am

I want to believe that Sacramento's proposed charter commission will be a model of small-"d" democracy. I'd like to trust supporters who promise an open and intelligent look at whether the city's governing document needs changing.

But I can't get past the awful feeling that this is a disaster in the making, that the panel will further divide this city.

After observing the first workshop for potential candidates, I'm convinced that it's naive to expect that the 15-member commission will be full of regular folks just doing their civic duty.

Much more likely, political activists, special interest advocates and other usual suspects will be warring on the panel – not just over strong-mayor proposals, but also over labor union protections, election districts and who knows what else.

The City Council could still save us from all this by voting by July 24 to pull back the November ballot measure. Unfortunately, it seems set in stone.

Just as there isn't any public outcry to overhaul the entire city charter, there's no mad rush yet of Sacramentans running for commissioner. Only nine prospective candidates showed up at Thursday's workshop designed for first-time office-seekers (and just six on Friday). Many were well-known political activists.

Bill Camp, executive secretary of the Sacramento Central Labor Council, was there. He opposes the charter panel, partly because of fears that it could change union-friendly provisions, but he wants a seat at the table if it is formed. Bob Graswich was also in the room, monitoring the proceedings for Mayor Kevin Johnson.

Carlos Rico, a leader of a faction in the Sacramento City Teachers Association, says he wants to advocate for students. With his friends in labor and among teachers, "If I have to fundraise, I know I can do it," he said.

Common Cause is a big proponent of the charter panel. But instead of rank-and-file members, the prospective candidate who attended was Derek Cressman, the group's Western regional director. He told me that he's interested in possible campaign finance and ethics reforms.

The only barrier to politicians getting on the panel is that elected officials would have to give up their current office – as Howard Posner, a Sacramento Municipal Utility District director, was disappointed to find out. "I thought it would be intriguing," he said. "Government is my life."

Political types know what it takes to run a campaign, but novices might discover it's all too daunting. After covering politics for many years, I knew that running for office was complicated and time-consuming. It was still eye-opening to sit through the two-hour briefing on what awaits candidates.

Just complying with local and state campaign finance regulations is a headache and a half. The city clerk's office suggested hiring a consultant or an accountant.

Depending on what the state Fair Political Practices Commission decides, candidates may have to disclose many of their financial assets and investments.

Then there's the cost. It's possible to run a successful grass-roots campaign with friends and volunteers knocking on doors and handing out cheap fliers. But just to get a candidate statement on the sample ballot, it will cost $2,100.

Craig Powell, head of the watchdog group Eye on Sacramento, raised concerns that a special interest group might try to pay for the ballot statements of a slate of candidates. City officials said that would likely violate campaign contribution limits. Powell told me that he wanted to make sure that Camp heard that answer in case labor unions had any notion of doing that.

Prospective candidates don't have much time to decide whether to jump in. The filing period opens Monday and closes Aug. 9.

They would have to spend time and money to campaign until Nov. 6, and give up some privacy. It could all be for naught if voters reject creating the commission.

If voters say yes, and if candidates are elected as commissioners, they would devote two years trying to come up with a plan that voters could ultimately kill. They would serve in unpaid positions with far fewer rewards and less power than other elected boards.

Will civic-minded residents really put themselves through all that? If they are willing, and if they have a plausible chance of winning, they might as well run for the City Council or school board.

C.T. Weber, California chairman of the Peace and Freedom Party, is running in part to push the idea of proportional voting in council elections, which he says would lead to more representation for minority groups.

But he shares the concern that the panel will be dominated by special interests, partly because all the requirements will "weed out a lot of people."

"An average person would be amazed by all the rules and regulations," Weber said. "If Abraham Lincoln had to be a candidate in the 21st century, he probably would not be a candidate."

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Read more articles by Foon Rhee, Associate editor

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