Now that Sacramento City Council members have pumped up their discretionary accounts, at least they're pledging to be more open about where the money goes.
It's about time. Council members insist that these accounts aren't "slush funds." They can prove it by telling taxpayers exactly how they're spending the cash and not just when they're promoting themselves as sponsors for neighborhood festivals and other feel-good events.
In the budget they adopted last week, council members and Mayor Kevin Johnson added $43,500 to their discretionary funds, increasing the total to $98,500 each in the fiscal year that starts July 1. During the debate last Tuesday night, council members agreed to put their expenditure reports online.
The City Clerk's Office is hashing out the details. As a start, it hopes to post the reports for 2012-13 on July 1; it will return to the council with a proposal going forward.
In whatever plan the council approves, the goal should be for expenditures to be clearly labeled and appear on each council member's website as soon as possible after they're made. If that's too big a record-keeping or technological burden, spending above a certain amount say $100 could be listed.
Anything would be better than the current situation. It requires a Public Records Act request, so The Bee's editorial board submitted one for discretionary spending since last July 1.
Scanning the 26-page list, it becomes clear that a significant chunk of cash goes to phone bills and other office expenses.
Most council members spread the money around in smaller donations to help local schools, libraries, civic groups, youth programs, scholarships, cultural organizations, charities and other worthy causes. While council members may gain goodwill, it seems unkind to raise many objections. New District 2 Councilman Allen Warren, for instance, gave $5,000 to help restart the Grant Little League; his predecessor Sandy Sheedy gave $5,000 to the TLC Soup Kitchen.
On the other hand, some money went to groups that are deeply involved in local politics. These seem like contributions better made out of personal or campaign funds. Nearly every council member, for instance, donated to the Sacramento Police Officers Association, which, as usual, was a major force in city elections last year and now is in intense negotiations with the city on a new contract. Other beneficiaries such as the regional Planned Parenthood affiliate's educational and scholarship funds might be controversial for some taxpayers.
Here's the bottom line: Council members have to remember that while they have discretion over these accounts, it's not their money. It belongs to residents who pay taxes, who deserve to know as much detail as possible about how it's being used.