Sacramento City Council approves ethics package

The Sacramento City Council approved on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015, a package of “good governance” measures, including creation of an ethics commission and an independent redistricting commission.
The Sacramento City Council approved on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015, a package of “good governance” measures, including creation of an ethics commission and an independent redistricting commission. Sacramento

A package of “good governance” measures, including creation of an ethics commission and an independent redistricting commission, was approved by the Sacramento City Council on Tuesday.

The council also accepted the city auditor’s finding that the city’s sexual harassment policy needs to be updated, and directed the city manager to make the recommended changes.

The “good governance” recommendations were made by a City Council ad hoc committee appointed by Mayor Kevin Johnson that met behind closed doors for months. The committee worked with attorneys specializing in government ethics, the League of Women Voters and government watchdog Common Cause. Those groups supported the proposals presented to the council Tuesday evening.

“Usually, cities don’t do sweeping reforms like this,” said Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, who chaired the ad hoc committee. “Usually, it’s shoved down their throats with a ballot measure.”

The ad hoc committee’s proposals were approved by a 8-0 vote, with Councilman Jay Schenirer absent.

A majority of the approximately 30 people who addressed the council urged approval of the recommendations.

“These are major, major reforms,” said former Sacramento city manager Bill Edgar in voicing his support.

But the watchdog group Eye on Sacramento urged the council to modify the ad hoc committee’s proposals. The group criticized the committee for meeting behind closed doors for 10 months, then calling on the council to immediately adopt its recommendations with little opportunity for the public to evaluate the proposals.

Noting that the ad hoc committee’s recommendations weren’t made public until late Thursday, Craig Powell, president of Eye on Sacramento, asked the council to forward the recommendations to the council’s law and legislation committee, without formal endorsement, to allow a full review and public debate.

The council, however, decided to move forward to establish an independent redistricting commission to redraw City Council district boundaries. The ad hoc committee recommended modeling the process after that used by the state. The intent is to take the politics out of redistricting and prevent council members from drawing district boundaries to benefit themselves.

Establishment of the commission requires voter approval and the ad hoc committee recommended placing a measure on the November 2018 ballot. This would allow the commission to handle redistricting following the 2020 census.

Usually cities don’t do sweeping reforms like this. Usually, it’s shoved down their throats with a ballot measure.

City Councilwoman Angelique Ashby

The council also directed the city clerk to work with the city attorney to draft an ethics code for presentation to the council for review and approval by late December or early next year.

The ethics reform package includes establishment of an office of compliance with a compliance officer and administrative support position in the city clerk’s office to educate employees and monitor the city’s compliance with its ethic policies.

The ethics commission is proposed to consist of five commissioners with legal backgrounds such as an administrative law judge, a retired judge with expertise in election law or ethics, an ethics professor, or a professional arbitrator or mediator. Commission members would be appointed by the mayor with confirmation by the City Council and would serve four-year terms.

The ethics commission is to focus on complaints involving campaign finance, lobbying, conflicts of interest and other ethics-related issues involving city ordinances or policies. The panel would receive findings from an independent, third-party investigator and determine the appropriate action, such as administrative penalties or fines.

Several people urged the council not to limit ethics commission candidates to those with legal backgrounds, arguing that people with other areas of expertise should be considered as well.

Councilmen Jeff Harris and Larry Carr expressed concern about the cost of implementing some of the reforms. The office of compliance, with two staff members and an outside investigator, is expected to cost approximately $450,000 a year.

“If we spend $450,000 on the ethics commission, we will lose something else,” Harris said. But if an ethics commission will help allay the public’s concerns, Harris said, he would support it.

Calls for ethics reform at City Hall intensified in recent months after Johnson and Councilman Allen Warren were accused of sexual harassment by city employees. The city attorney and an independent investigation later found the claim against Johnson to be unsubstantiated. The investigation into the claim against Warren is ongoing.

Johnson’s use of city staff members and private email accounts to revive and later take control of the National Conference of Black Mayors also has been scrutinized. The claim against Warren included an allegation that he asked city staffers to work on business for his private development firm, New Faze.

Warren served on the good governance ad hoc committee with fellow council members Ashby and Schenirer.

In a separate matter Tuesday, the council received a report from city auditor Jorge Oseguera, who had been directed to conduct an assessment of the city’s sexual harassment policy. Oseguera said his staff concluded that the policy did not adequately address all of the areas required by the Fair Employment and Housing Commission. In addition, he said, there were gaps in the process used to identify and ensure that city supervisors complete the training required under state law.

Oseguera said the city has been working for several years to update its sexual harassment policy, and many of the recommended improvements are included in the current draft policy.

Cathy Locke: 916-321-5287, @lockecathy

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