The Public Eye

Have Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson’s 5 new aides paid dividends?

Mayor Kevin Johnson talks about his strong-mayor proposal in 2014. Voters defeated it, and Johnson then added several controversial staff positions during the 2015 budget process.
Mayor Kevin Johnson talks about his strong-mayor proposal in 2014. Voters defeated it, and Johnson then added several controversial staff positions during the 2015 budget process. Sacramento Bee file

Controversial staff positions added to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson’s office last year make the office more effective, say two of his top aides. But some council members still say the money should be spent elsewhere.

Johnson’s move to fortify his staff with five additional positions last year raised concerns that he was overstepping the bounds of his office – especially after voters had just rejected his strong mayor ballot measure, which would have increased his power over city government.

His office now has 11 full-time staff members including the mayor, officials said, compared to the seven full-time positions he had before. One previously existing full-time staff position is vacant.

The three highest-paid employees added to the mayor’s staff are City Legislative Affairs Director Scott Whyte, Intergovernmental Affairs Director Lindsey Nitta and Community Relations Director Jovan Agee. Two of the new staff members are administrative assistants, each receiving an annual salary of $45,000.

Whyte and Nitta are paid $85,000 a year and Agee’s salary is $100,000. Including the cost of employee benefits, the estimated total bill for the five staff positions comes to $450,000, according to the mayor’s office.

The budget passed by the City Council in June put a price tag of $652,000 on the new positions. Technically, only two of the positions are in the mayor’s budget and three are in the city manager’s budget, but all of the new staffers work for the mayor.

Whyte, a former home builders’ advocate, was hired last April before the budget was finalized. Agee was hired in the summer before Strait came on as chief of staff. He was the California state director for StudentsFirst, an education advocacy organization founded by Johnson’s wife, Michelle Rhee, from September 2013 until December 2014.

Johnson press secretary Ben Sosenko said Johnson knew Agee before he worked for StudentsFirst.

Nitta, who previously worked at Mercury Public Affairs, was hired in October, about the same time as Strait.

“We bolstered our extremely small staff, which was smaller than any legislator’s representing Sacramento, to do a better job for the city, and it has paid off and then some,” Sosenko said in a statement.

Johnson has several initiatives in the works for his last year in office – his downtown housing push for 10,000 units, community policing initiatives and building up the tech industry in Sacramento.

Crystal Strait, Johnson’s chief of staff, said two of the new directors played a role in the work of the Community Police Commission and the Officer Next Door initiative. Established last summer, the Community Police Commission gathers input from the community on recommendations for police practices and holds public meetings each month. Officer Next Door is aimed at increasing community outreach by police, creating the mayor’s Gang Prevention and Intervention Task Force and partnering with local high schools and the Cadet Program to recruit a more diverse set of young officers.

Agee attends all the meetings of the commission to gather community input on police activity, Strait said. Whyte, the legislative director, wrote the language to present to council on starting Officer Next Door and establishing the commission, she said.

Strait pointed to the appointment of a new federal government liaison between the Department of Housing and Urban Development and cities in Northern California as a success made possible by Nitta, the intergovernmental affairs director.

Sacramento was designated a “promise zone” about a year ago and Johnson was selected as one of five mayors to meet with the secretary of the department in January to talk about how to leverage that designation. Nitta helped get that meeting and prepared Johnson to lobby to get the liaison assigned, Strait said.

The liaison, who hasn’t started yet, will help the city find and apply for more federal grants, coordinate with other promise zone cities and share best practices learned in other promise zones.

Councilman Eric Guerra, who voted against the budget that authorized Johnson’s staff increase last year, said he has found the new employees helpful and accessible in preparing him for a recent trip to Portland to talk to local officials there about homelessness. Nitta put together information about Portland’s policies and past conversations between Sacramento officials and Portland officials.

He wouldn’t change his vote, however.

“I still would have said we need support in the neighborhoods,” he said. “We still don’t have nearly the number of park rangers, law enforcement and code enforcement that we need.”

Councilman Steve Hansen argued last year that the money being spent on beefing up the mayor’s staff should instead be used for more parks employees. Today, he said he would like to see a report from the mayor’s office on what the positions have accomplished. He said the public doesn’t entirely trust the government to use money wisely, and adding employees to the mayor’s office doesn’t help.

“I continue to think that with such pressing needs in other parts of the city organization that it’s hard to justify,” he said. “Certainly (the positions) have their merits, but in the overall needs of the city we have to make difficult decisions about trade-offs. As the city recovers, how we deploy our resources to most effectively serve the people is probably the most critical question we face.”

Ellen Garrison: 916-321-1920, @EllenGarrison