Craig Powell is making a name for himself as a thorn in the side of city and county politicians. He once brought a gold-painted toilet to a Sacramento City Council meeting to make a point about wasteful spending. He’s spent at least $96,000 over the last 10 years in Sacramento elections, according to campaign filings.
And now he’s making a mark with his opposition to Measure U, the city’s 1 cent sales tax proposal heavily backed by Mayor Darrell Steinberg. A local watchdog group he helped found, Eye on Sacramento, argues the tax is an unnecessary burden on residents that could be avoided with strategic budget cuts.
That Powell is leading the charge against the tax hike, as he did in 2012 when a half-cent tax was on the ballot, should come as no surprise to anyone at City Hall.
“You either love the guy or hate the guy,” said former city clerk Shirley Concolino.
Among allies, the retired attorney and property manager is well-respected and praised as a crusader against poor money management. Former and current city officials see him as a contrarian voice against any and all tax increases, with unrealistic expectations of the city’s financial dealings and a nose for picking fights for the sake of it.
Part of his credibility comes from his background. In a city that consistently votes blue, supporters speak to his financial know-how as an established Republican leader. A longtime vice president of the Sacramento County Taxpayers League, Powell previously served as chairman of the Sacramento County Republican Party in the early 1990s, and has served as on the state’s Republican party board of directors, which helps define the party’s platforms and goals.
But Powell said in a statement provided to The Bee that he grew “increasingly disenchanted with the way in which partisans rarely listened to one another or considered others’ viewpoints or opinions.” It wasn’t until 2010 when Powell was re-energized to return to politics at a local level. Powell declined a sit-down interview for this story.
Eight years ago, a utility rate hike in the city became Powell’s first call to action. Powell, already struggling to pay his utilities’ late fees with high interest costs as a family member’s medical bills climbed, said his concern grew for how the city managed its utilities department.
He got a measure on the ballot to roll back the utility rate increase. It was, in Powell’s words, “creamed.” Still, it catapulted him into the fray of local politics, and garnered him a reputation as a policy-oriented man who deeply cares about the city.
The next year, in 2011, Eye on Sacramento was born. Nancy Kitz, who joined the group in 2015, said she was surprised and impressed by the collaborative nature of the organization’s policy-making meetings.
“It just felt like a working group that did want to create change and I was really refreshed by that,” Kitz said, who identifies as a progressive and fiscal conservative. “Honestly, I think they’re singular in what they do in Sacramento, and I think he’s a gracious committed man, an open man who provides a space for that.”
In the year it was founded, Powell and the group took on a 20-year waste management contract which could’ve raised costs for homeowners, describing the deal in an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee as “absolutely terrible for Sacramentans” and a “garbage mess.” That was when he brought the toilet to a City Council meeting. The next year, they took on water and sewer hikes, and demanded the city to adopt a “sunshine rule” to give the public two weeks to review labor contracts before final votes.
Former City Council member Steve Cohn said he remembers in his early forays with Powell that he would find some critiques compelling, such as with the utility hike increase. But Cohn said he found Powell’s opposition to city capital projects or improvements, such as with Golden 1 Center arena deal, based more on philosophical principles than fact-based reasoning.
“I would’ve appreciated (recognition) that some of his criticisms were being acknowledged, that the city got it right,” Cohn said, saying the city ultimately found ways to limit its liability and maximize benefits in its final plan. “His role isn’t to do that. It’s to be a thorn in City Hall’s side, and frankly, City Hall needs it.”
Julian Camacho, who’s known Powell for about 15 years, said he and Powell saw the arena plan differently.
“We worked very hard to put that arena issue on the ballot and let the people, let the populace decide whether that was the best use of the funds,” Camacho said. Camacho was a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the city over its 2014 deal with the Kings to finance the arena that was rejected by a judge in 2015. “It was a fight for what we believe was social justice.”
Over the years, current and past city officials say that Powell has become increasingly radical, driven by political ideology and dogma. Eye on Sacramento continues to produce reports on reducing city spending, such as its recent “Blueprint for a Post-Measure U Sacramento.” Councilman Jay Schenirer said that watchdog groups are good overall for governments to improve, but that Eye on Sacramento has “stretched the facts in many ways” when it comes to Measure U.
“I think public accountability is strongly needed. I think people coming in with agendas is fine,” he said, citing advocacy groups that urged the city to pass a cannabis equity program. “I think it’s difficult to work with any organization that 100 percent of the time oppose you.”
And Powell, a de facto public figure who has built a political career out of calls for fiscal transparency, has at times struggled to keep his own organization’s financial situation in check.
Between 2011 and 2013, Eye on Sacramento failed to file mandatory state nonprofit reports and pay required renewal fees. When notified of the discrepancy in 2015, the organization back-filed delinquent reports. The organization has not filed the necessary paperwork to maintain its nonprofit status since 2015. For years available in the California Department of Justice database, the organization reports an annual revenue of less than $50,000, meaning it is not required to file a 990 tax form — a gap in accountability that Schenirer said masks who’s funding the watchdog group.
“It’s exceedingly common among nonprofits without dedicated staffs (that) sometimes these filing requirements fall through the cracks,” Powell said. “We’re very, very busy doing our main job which is keeping an eye on government, and sometimes formalities get missed.”
And in the #MeToo era, Powell has faced controversies of his own that have played out in newspapers and in court.
In 2002, Powell was on trial for charges of false imprisonment and sexual battery. A tenant at one of his properties alleged Powell held her down on a bed while masturbating, then left her $60. The Bee reported at the time that police later recorded a phone call between the two where Powell is heard apologizing for the incident. At the time, Powell’s lawyer argued the woman made up the allegations to get Powell’s money, according to the Bee. The jury was deadlocked and a mistrial was declared.
And a tumultuous relationship Powell had with another tenant also landed in court in the late 1990s. Both requested restraining orders against one another after alleging the other had physically and verbally abused them, according to court records. The tenant, who would at one point arrested for violating her restraining order, alleged in her 1996 request that “Mr. Powell takes full advantage of that aspect in proclaiming to have enormous amounts of influence and power in Sacramento” and claimed Powell said “he could get me ‘arrested at any time.’”
Both women who alleged the sexual misconduct declined to comment. Powell denied any and all claims of sexual abuse. He said he declined a plea bargain and chose to face a felony conviction in the 2002 case because, “I was not about to admit to a criminal, heinous act. “ He added that “nothing could be farther from the truth” regarding the other woman’s allegations, and that he was frequently the victim of domestic violence.
It’s a unique case of colliding interests, said Sacramento State political science professor Danielle Martin.
“It certainly sounds hypocritical for him to want this transparency when he has this in his own background,” Martin said, “but there are no mechanics to sanction the behavior among private citizens spending money in elections besides calling attention to it.”
And studies show that voters generally discount potentially negative personal characteristics if candidates help enact policies in their line with their views, Martin said.
“So much of what we know is only about a name. If we don’t know a lot of about a candidate we just see D or R,” Martin said. “That’s certainly concerning for someone with power, even behind the scenes.”
Powell will continue to be a force in city politics when the fight over Measure U ends Tuesday night. His group’s latest initiative is Eye on Sacramento Schools, which intends to look into local school districts and offer policy solutions on “difficult, chronic problems that beset our local schools, particularly financial problems,” Powell said in a statement.
“Being a local government watchdog is not always easy,” the statement reads. “But we won’t be intimidated from shining a light on the actions and policies of local government in Sacramento County.”