Foon Rhee

Foon Rhee: Will new Sacramento City Council be on the same page?

Published: Friday, Feb. 8, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 14A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:04 pm

If you've been through a touchy-feely team-building exercise at your office, you sort of know what it was like for Sacramento City Council members.

And if you live in Sacramento, you have a stake in the success of this week's retreat, the first in four years. For the city to do better, council members must work together better.

Watching them for three hours, I was having flashbacks from my own career – having to confess embarrassing episodes, do "trust" falls backward and race in wheelbarrow relays. Thank goodness, there was none of that for council members.

They gathered Tuesday afternoon, before their regular City Hall meeting, at the Sierra Health Foundation, a more relaxed setting with river views. They talked in twos and threes, and then shared with the entire group as a facilitator jotted down key points on big sheets of paper.

Mayor Kevin Johnson started things off by declaring that the council has a clean slate and "a tremendous opportunity to do something really special," though it will take "trust and time to build a cohesive team."

This new council has two political newcomers elected in November – Steve Hansen and Allen Warren. With five of nine members first elected since 2010, it has the most fresh faces in many years.

The previous council battled over "strong mayor" proposals, new voting districts, the budget and other issues. Several holdovers acknowledged those fights – Bonnie Pannell admitted she was "p----d off" at Johnson at times – though they said the dysfunction was overblown by the media and magnified by public sniping.

They all promised to be better team players. They said all the right things about treating one another with respect, putting the city first and sharing a love for Sacramento. They also revealed a few personal tidbits to give some insight into who they really are.

Kevin McCarty said he had a horrible stuttering problem growing up, which is why he sometimes talks fast during meetings. Steve Cohn said as the middle of five children after his father died when he was 3, he was always the peacemaker, which is why he tries to play that role on the council. Vice Mayor Angelique Ashby said it meant the world to her when her colleagues offered such strong support when she told them last fall she was pregnant.

There was so much camaraderie, I thought they would start singing "Kumbaya."

But as many of them pointed out, the proof will be whether they follow through on their pledges and produce results. "It's easy to sit here and say nice things," said Jay Schenirer.

There were some painfully awkward pauses when they were supposed to tell each other what they would do, individually, to make sure the council works well. Cohn joked that he would give shorter speeches at council meetings. Johnson vowed to be a good listener and to lead on tough issues. (Since I was the only person from outside City Hall in attendance, I couldn't help but wonder if they would have been more candid if I hadn't been observing.)

As Ashby said, council members will be tested when they're faced with sacrificing their district's interests for the good of the entire city, and when they need to have their colleagues' back – Darrell Fong, for instance, as he pushes to extend the recreational trail along the Sacramento River levee through the Pocket, despite stiff opposition from some homeowners.

Still, the retreat wasn't a time for doubts or what-ifs. It ended on an optimistic note.

Cohn, the most senior council member, predicted that with the rebounding economy, the next two years could be the most productive in city history. Johnson, the focal point for dissension, said this council has the chance to be the best ever and "to do something magical."

As a parting gift, the mayor gave each of his colleagues a book on the wisdom of John Wooden, the late UCLA coaching legend famous for preaching teamwork.

To remind them of the spirit of the retreat, Johnson is putting together a two-CD mix tape of favorite songs from the first concerts that council members went to – one of the personal details they shared. So they can look forward to "Where the Streets Have No Name" by U2, "Rocky Mountain High" by John Denver, "ABC' by the Jackson 5 and other oldies.

The big question now is whether council members can stay in tune through the tough decisions ahead.

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