Kevin Johnson’s push for more staff reflects continued national ambitions

Mayor Kevin Johnson, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, speaks before a panel discussion about sports and race relations during a conference meeting last summer in Dallas.
Mayor Kevin Johnson, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, speaks before a panel discussion about sports and race relations during a conference meeting last summer in Dallas. Associated Press file

After more than six years, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson is on the cusp of expanding the reach of his office to reflect national ambitions he has chased since he was first elected.

The City Council is expected Tuesday night to approve a budget that would give the mayor five more positions and boost the spending of his office by 70 percent.

Critics have complained that the mayor’s demands are unnecessary and self-serving. But if the vote goes his way, the mayor says he will finally have the resources he needs to carry out initiatives both local and national in scale.

“We’re always talking about putting Sacramento on the map,” Johnson said. “When you’re in leadership positions and you have direct relationships with the White House, when you develop those relationships and connect with the right people, there are several ways Sacramento benefits directly from that.”

The new jobs have titles like intergovernmental affairs adviser, community relations adviser and city legislative affairs adviser. The people who assume those positions, the mayor told council members in May, would, respectively, focus their efforts on attempting to gain more attention and resources from state and federal agencies, follow the mayor’s priority initiatives through the legislative process and address concerns from Sacramento residents.

In April, Johnson filled the first of those positions, tapping former North State Building Industry Association advocate Scott Whyte as city legislative affairs adviser for $85,000 a year. All told, his staff expansion will cost nearly $700,000 in the next fiscal year.

Until now, Johnson has relied on a vast roster of volunteers and consultants to expand his capacity beyond City Hall.

City Councilman Steve Hansen, the most vocal critic of Johnson’s bid to grow his staff, said he does not see why it cannot stay that way.

“The idea that these staffers will make such a critical difference, I just don’t buy that,” Hansen said. “The city already has a significant number of contract lobbyists in D.C. We have a very good member of Congress in Congresswoman (Doris) Matsui. We have our senators who are active in making sure things happen for us in Washington, and we have no lack of resources on that front. I really don’t think a person making $85,000 or $100,000 in the mayor’s office is going to meaningfully change things in Washington, D.C., from Sacramento.”

Johnson has long complained that he has not had the resources to further his local and national agendas.

He arrived in 2008 with a large contingent of volunteers to work on initiatives concentrating on education, clean technology and homelessness. Some operated on a high level traditionally reserved for paid staff, advising Johnson on policy issues and handling his interactions with the media.

Just months after Johnson took office, the city tightened its rules governing volunteers after city officials found that volunteers had attended meetings in which confidential city matters were discussed, had access to restricted parts of City Hall and attempted to give direction to city staffers. The new rules prohibited those actions, and Johnson asked that high-level volunteers be required to fill out conflict-of-interest forms.

Johnson relied most heavily on volunteers and paid consultants during his three-year effort to keep the Kings in town. That campaign was driven largely by members of Think Big, a task force formed by the mayor that explored arena financing plans, developed media strategies to market Sacramento to the NBA and recruited a local ownership group to buy the team. The earliest form of the task force was made up of volunteers, although Johnson eventually raised money to fund the group. Major funding came from the Sacramento Kings.

Some Johnson critics on the council expressed concern that an early version of the task force was representing the city, even though it was not a city agency. Those criticisms faded by 2013, when the City Council approved a financing plan for a $477 million arena, cementing the Kings’ future in town.

During that time, Johnson continued to build a national profile for himself and Sacramento. Last year, the City Council approved $40,000 for Johnson’s budget to pay for “the mayor to address increased travel requirements related to the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Conference of Black Mayors.”

The mayor’s staff and volunteers were deeply involved in Johnson’s role with both national groups. Staff aides accompanied Johnson to U.S. Conference of Mayors events around the country, including helping him to guide the prestigious organization’s annual conference last year in Dallas.

In addition to his well-known work on the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Johnson relied on city staff and nonprofit volunteers to help him become president of the National Conference of Black Mayors in 2013. Atlanta-based Fulton County Superior Court records reviewed by The Sacramento Bee, along with city emails obtained through the Public Records Act, show that Johnson went to great lengths to take control of NCBM in one of the most vivid examples of his national ambitions.

Johnson filed suit in 2013 to demand that NCBM’s executive director, Vanessa Williams, turn over the organization’s financial records and subject the group’s finances to an audit. The litigation, which included a counterclaim by Williams alleging that Johnson had not been properly elected, sheds light on Johnson’s pursuit of the NCBM presidency.

Johnson testified in court in December 2013 that he tasked six people on his City Hall staff or employees of organizations he is affiliated with to work on business for NCBM, a historic group born of the civil rights movement that had lost much of its credibility and clout thanks to years of corrupt leadership and money mismanagement, as detailed by court documents and a federal criminal investigation of the group’s former president.

The level of Johnson’s staff and volunteer involvement was visible in emails from 2013 obtained through the Public Records Act, which showed that several individuals who identified themselves as members of the mayor’s staff formed an email group on July 10, 2013, dedicated to working on NCBM affairs. The mayor testified in Fulton County Superior Court that those individuals “were employed by me or the city or an entity.”

Key staffers were involved in the correspondence, including Cassandra Jennings, a senior adviser to the mayor and a longtime city employee; Aaron Anderson, a city-registered volunteer; and Mariah Sheriff, who was not on the city payroll despite being identified in emails as the mayor’s director of governmental affairs in education. Other emails were written by fellows or interns in the mayor’s office.

Aisha Lowe also played a role in the NCBM effort. She was the head of Stand Up, an education advocacy organization that Johnson founded in 2006 and for which the mayor has raised roughly $3.8 million in behest contributions. In a July 3, 2013, email about an op-ed that Johnson wrote about NCBM for The Seattle Medium News, Lowe’s email signature lists her as “interim director of African American Affairs” for the mayor’s office.

In an interview with The Bee, Johnson said furthering the mission of NCBM and establishing a “united voice for African American mayors in this country” was something he felt would benefit Sacramento in the long run.

“When you’re in a leadership position of an organization like (the NCBM or the U.S. Conference of Mayors), you have direct relationships with the White House, federal agencies, national resources and programs, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies,” Johnson said. “When you develop those relationships and talk about Sacramento along the way, you have all these people who become interested and look at things that they wouldn’t have otherwise. It raises the visibility of Sacramento.”

A Fulton County judge last year affirmed Johnson’s NCBM presidency, after which Johnson led the charge to bankrupt the organization after he and other mayors believed it could not be saved financially. A month later, he formed a new one, the African American Mayors Association, and became its president. To get the new association going, Johnson raised $370,000 from national corporations such as Uber, Comcast and the RLJ Cos., according to records filed with the City Clerk’s office.

Johnson credits his time leading these mayors groups with, among other things, Sacramento being one of eight communities in the country the White House designated as a “promise zone,” in which certain high-poverty neighborhoods are given greater priority when applying for federal grants to spur economic growth.

Loyola Law School professor and political ethics expert Jessica Levinson said that like many other big city mayors, Johnson has made no secret of his desire to increase both his own and the city’s national profile. And that’s not problematic, as long as he’s “not just trying to make a name for himself,” she said.

“You want to make sure you are raising your profile to help the city, not raising the profile to help yourself,” she said. “In an ideal world, there is something concrete where you can tell people this is how spending this money (on city staff and travel) helped you beyond the broad platitude that it helped put the city on the map.”

Bee correspondent Maggie Lee contributed to this report from Atlanta.

Marissa Lang: (916) 321-1038, @Marissa_Jae

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