Stuart Leavenworth

Stuart Leavenworth: Scandal-free Sacramento? Oh, please …

Published: Sunday, Jul. 29, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 6E
Last Modified: Sunday, Jul. 29, 2012 - 9:34 am

One of the biggest myths floated by members of the Sacramento City Council is that they've presided over a scandal-free city. We heard this again this month when Councilman Kevin McCarty and two of his colleagues visited the editorial board to make a pitch for an elected commission that would consider revisions to the city charter.

McCarty claimed this approach was preferable to Mayor Kevin Johnson's strong-mayor plan, which in his view isn't justified in improving how the city functions.

"Sacramento is a very good government, clean city," said McCarty, at which point I had to prop up my jaw to keep it from hitting the floor.

Clean city? Really?

Let's see. We've had the son of a City Council member handing out permits in Natomas, in violation of federal restrictions on building in a floodplain. We've had other employees fail to collect millions of dollars in permit fees. We had a middle manager in the utilities department take kickbacks from a scrap dealer who received exclusive rights to used water meters. We've had the City Council approve a costly solid waste contract that benefits a garbage hauler who hired two former city managers to lobby for it. We've had the council preside over the deterioration of our water and sewer systems, leaving all of us with a repair bill that tops $260 million.

Now we learn that one of Mayor Kevin Johnson's top aides – the daughter of a beloved former city mayor – was using her city credit card to charge a trip to Disneyland and pay for other personal expenses. Obviously, I can't blame the City Council for a decision that Lisa Serna-Mayorga now feels "very badly about," (as the mayor put it). But it doesn't help fortify the narrative that Sacramento is a scandal-free city.

Yes, Sacramento is not Chicago, or Vernon or Bell. Thank goodness we are not New Orleans, where the Police Department is so corrupt that the federal government had to intervene. But we have a city government, led by the council, that regularly breaches the public trust and embarrasses the residents of California's capital.

In a survey released earlier this year, 56 percent of Sacramento city employees said they had concerns about waste, fraud or abuse inside City Hall, but more than half said they didn't report it, largely because of fear of retaliation.

Does that sound like a City Hall with a culture of cleanliness?

Probably the biggest scandal is the overinflated image that City Council members have of themselves and Sacramento's place within the region.

As the area's largest city and the home of state government, Sacramento should be setting the standard for schools, parks, infrastructure, fiscal responsibility and efficient, well-managed services of all kinds.

We should be the catalyst for working with other jurisdictions on projects of mutual benefit, such as the American River Parkway, the downtown riverfront and recruitment of new businesses and universities.

Instead, we are the city with troubled school districts, the laughable K Street, the empty railyard and a downtown mall that looks like it got hit by a neutron bomb. And far too often, our leaders disrespect the rest of the region as they try to pilot the good ship Sacramento.

The latest example is Mayor Johnson's ill-fated attempt to lure the Oakland A's to Sacramento. Surely the mayor must have realized this would set off alarm bells in West Sacramento, which is home to an A's farm team, the River Cats. After all, if the A's come here, the River Cats have to go elsewhere, potentially leaving West Sacramento and other jurisdictions with bond payments on Raley Field they can't pay off.

What did Johnson do? Did he talk with West Sacramento Mayor Chris Cabaldon before unveiling his plans?

No. As usual, he just charged ahead, infuriating Cabaldon, and forcing Johnson to spend the afternoon of the announcement trying to patch things up with his West Sac counterpart.

This was hardly the first time Sacramento and its city leaders have dissed West Sacramento or other cities in the region. At a hearing last July on plans for new bridges over the Sacramento River, some City Council members tried to curry favor with bridge opponents by disparaging West Sacramento's development. McCarty called it "sprawlapalooza."

I've been a resident of Sacramento for 13 years and am grateful to call this my home. This city is so cool in so many ways, from its distinct central city neighborhoods to its tree canopy to its vibrant food scene and home-grown music and theater.

But we are part of a larger region, and we should expect more of our city leaders. If they want Sacramento to be seen as a model of good governance, they will need to work harder – and show more humility – than they have to date.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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