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City Council embraces transparency provisions pushed by new Mayor Steinberg

Darrell Steinberg greets members of the audience during his first full Sacramento City Council meeting as mayor at City Hall on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017..
Darrell Steinberg greets members of the audience during his first full Sacramento City Council meeting as mayor at City Hall on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017.. aseng@sacbee.com

After a year of unsuccessful efforts by advocacy groups to strengthen a proposed sunshine ordinance, the Sacramento City Council on Thursday embraced a stronger transparency plan presented by Mayor Darrell Steinberg.

Steinberg, leading his first council meeting, pushed to add provisions that would open more meetings to the public and curtail the use of private email servers by city staff and elected officials.

The mayor’s plan would also force quicker disclosure of controversial “behest” donations to charities favored by council members and encourage members to publish their suggested changes to ordinances prior to meetings, rather than floating ideas from the dais.

“Those amendments really allowed us to wholeheartedly support (the measure),” said Paula Lee, president of the League of Women Voters, one of the groups that has worked on the proposal since its inception and who has fought for some of the changes championed by Steinberg.

Steinberg announced his transparency plan earlier in the week, and by Thursday's meeting had garnered the support of the full council.

“We're talking about being a model of leadership ... to regain the public trust,” said Councilman Rick Jennings, who was appointed to another term as Vice Mayor at Thursday’s meeting.

Council member Jeff Harris echoed that sentiment, saying, “the public perception of their local government must be founded on trust.”

Steinberg's proposal that private email be banned for city business drew the most discussion, mainly because of concerns over changing technology and costs.

Council members Jeff Harris and Jay Schenirer both expressed concerns about the cost of Public Records Act requests, many of which involve emails. Schenirer said the city faced a “balancing act” between transparency and costs, adding that the city spends “hundreds of thousands” of dollars fulfilling information requests each year.

Councilwoman Angelique Ashby and Councilman Larry Carr cautioned that any ordinance about records should take into account changing technology. Carr said language needed to be “technology neutral” to avoid becoming outdated.

Earlier in the night, John Cox, general council for Petrovich Development Company, urged that text messages from city staff and elected officials should be available under the Public Records Act. Public access to text messages is a controversial issue currently making its way through the courts. Petrovich Development is currently involved in a contentious lawsuit with the city over a stalled development near Curtis Park.

Steinberg said the city should wait for the courts to decide the texting issue, but, he said, “at least for now we can say for emails the public's business should be done on public servers.”

The council also approved an ongoing package of ethics reforms that will create a new ethics commission and code-of-ethics ordinance and update the city’s campaign finance ordinance.

Steinberg suggested that the city explore outsourcing enforcement and investigation of the city’s campaign finance ordinance to the state Fair Political Practices Commission to cut costs and increase oversight. Steinberg pointed out that the state agency has a depth of expertise that the city would have difficulty matching, and that contracting out could save money.

Councilman Larry Carr called that idea “right on.”

The FPPC usually handles only state-level matters but does have the ability to provide the kind of services that Steinberg recommended in two California municipalities: Stockton and the county of San Bernardino, according to FPPC spokesman Jay Wierenga. San Bernardino currently contracts with the FPPC and Stockton has received the necessary state approval but has not pursued a contract.

Contracting with the FPPC for local oversight requires a state bill for authorization, which Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, has agreed to carry for the city in the coming year if the council moves forward on the idea.

Oversight of other ethical issues, such as sexual harassment or discrimination issues, would still fall to the new ethics commission.

Also approved were two controversial employment contracts that bring a duo of recently-retired CalPERS annuitants onto the city payroll for limited, hourly-pay jobs in high-ranking positions.

Steinberg picked former Sacramento Area Council of Governments head Mike McKeever as his chief of staff. McKeever retired from SACOG on Jan. 1.

Interim city manager Howard Chan hired former director of public works Jerry Way as a temporary city manager. Way retired from the city last fall.

Critics of the hires say they constitute “double dipping” because McKeever and Way would likely receive both pension payments and city paychecks.

“The problem is that these fellows claim to have retired and now they are coming back to work so their retirement is…a legal fiction that allows them to make immense incomes, to pull a pension while pulling a paycheck from the city,” said Craig Powell of government watchdog group Eye on Sacramento. “It is abusive.”

McKeever and Way will not accrue credit toward a second pension or receive any benefits in their new jobs, and neither can work more than 960 hours in a fiscal year, which is about half-time. McKeever will earn $55.85 per hour and Way will earn $86.91 per hour.

City spokeswoman Linda Tucker said Way, with 36 years experience with the city, would provide stability during a period of flux when the city has an interim city manager and a new mayor.

“He's just a guy who gets stuff done," said Councilman Jay Schenirer before joining his colleagues on unanimous approvals of the contracts.

Kelly Rivas, spokesperson for Steinberg, said that McKeever was tapped to help Steinberg implement his region-wide goals. At SACOG, McKeever worked with a board that included representatives from local governments in the six-county Sacramento region.

“What we are doing (is) across boundaries,” said Rivas. “Who better than somebody who has worked with this broad county region?”

The final sunshine ordinance is expected to return to the council for a vote on February 28.

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Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa

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