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  • Kevin McCarty, Darrell Fong and Steve Cohn were assigned to write a ballot statement in favor of a city sales tax hike.

  • Kevin McCarty, Darrell Fong and Steve Cohn were assigned to write a ballot statement in favor of a city sales tax hike.

  • Kevin McCarty, Darrell Fong and Steve Cohn were assigned to write a ballot statement in favor of a city sales tax hike.

Grand jury chides Sacramento City Council over ballot arguments

Published: Friday, Jul. 5, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Friday, Jul. 5, 2013 - 6:58 am

The Sacramento County grand jury has called Sacramento city officials to task for their handling of three city ballot measures last year.

The jury, in its 2012-13 report, said the way the city assigned and wrote the ballot arguments for measures M, T and U was inconsistent with state election procedure and with the city's own protocols, and lacked transparency.

The most significant of the three measures, Measure U, created a half-cent sales tax increase for six years to help the city out of budget difficulties and avoid further service cuts.

In its report, issued last week, the grand jury said the City Council should not have assigned some of its members to write the ballot statement in favor of Measure U, while, at the same time, assigning another member, Mayor Kevin Johnson, to write the opposing argument.

The report noted that council members Kevin McCarty, Darrell Fong and Steve Cohn handed off the signing of the ballot argument to the city police and fire chiefs and several others without public explanation or notice.

McCarty said he, Cohn and Fong felt they were following established city practice by asking community leaders to sign the statement. He acknowledged this week that the council should address the grand jury findings to improve its procedures in future elections.

The mayor notably failed to submit his ballot argument against Measure U on time, resulting in no statement on the ballot against the measure.

Craig Powell of Eye On Sacramento, a watchdog group, said his organization had wanted to write the opposing argument on the measure but backed off when it learned the mayor was going to do so.

Under law, the mayor and council have first claim on writing ballot measure arguments.

The grand jury concluded the mayor's failure to submit his ballot argument on time was "negligent, not intentional." Daniel Conway, the mayor's chief of staff, said in an email that the grand jury got that "exactly right."

He declined further comment.

City Attorney James Sanchez said the grand jury report does not affect the outcome of the November election.

"The vote is a valid election and election result," he said. "That stands."

The grand jury raised similar concerns about ballot arguments for Measure M, which would have established a city charter review commission, and Measure T, which substitutes yard refuse containers for the old "claw" pickup service.

The jury called for the city to review and clarify its policies for assigning, writing and signing ballot measure arguments.

The City Council is required to hold a public hearing to discuss the findings, and to issue a response to the Sacramento Superior Court by Sept. 28.

Powell, who said his watchdog group is one of the two that requested the grand jury investigation, said he is pleased by the findings.

"We hope the City Council has the wisdom to follow all the recommendations of the grand jury to protect the integrity of city ballot measures and ensure true transparency in city elections," he said.

Call The Bee's Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059. Follow him on Twitter @tonybizjak.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Tony Bizjak



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