What happens when the lens is turned around and the watchdogs become the watched?
That’s happening right now with the city’s best-known watchdog organization, Eye on Sacramento. The plucky group that’s been hammering City Hall since 2011 is now on the defensive after a councilman began demanding: Show me the money!
Councilman Jay Schenirer, one of the senior members of the council, started asking Eye on Sacramento to open its books a few weeks ago. He wanted a detailed accounting of where it gets its money and a list of who its members are. The group has provided some tax documents, but has largely refused his request since the documents they provided didn’t give a full list of donors.
“Since they represent themselves as experts and do everything they can to draw media attention, people have a right to know – in the name of transparency – who they are and what their credentials are,” Schenirer said, adding that he’d also like to see the group’s bylaws.
When Schenirer began asking for the information, he was put in contact with Paul Nicholas Boylan, an attorney who said he is advising Eye on Sacramento. Boylan wrote a letter to Schenirer in August, asking why he was asking for the information and whether Schenirer was acting as an individual or on behalf of the city (Schenirer said he’s acting as both).
That second point is important because of what Eye on Sacramento is.
Eye on Sacramento has been the most organized watchdog of City Hall since it first came on the scene. Its leader, Craig Powell, an attorney who owns apartment complexes in midtown and Curtis Park, has also been extremely active in political and policy matters, helping to fund opposition campaigns to utility rate and tax increases, and regularly testifying at City Council meetings.
Most recently, Powell and Eye on Sacramento were fierce critics of the city’s plan to expand the Sacramento Convention Center and a ballot measure last week to raise the sales tax for transportation projects.
On the Convention Center, Eye on Sacramento has described the major project as a waste of money, arguing that other cities haven’t reaped the benefits of expensive convention center expansions. It appears Eye on Sacramento will lose this battle, given the support at City Hall for a bigger convention center.
Powell also argued that Measure B – the transportation tax that was narrowly rejected by voters – was unneeded, given that an existing transportation tax already generates millions for local work. Powell was on the winning side of that fight, despite facing some of the region’s most influential politicians and special interests.
Powell declined to discuss Schenirer’s requests last week, saying his attorney had asked him “to hold off answering any media inquiries on this matter for the time being.”
It’s clear the City Council and city management see Powell and Eye on Sacramento as pests. Schenirer said he thinks some of their reports – especially the one blasting the convention center – are “skewed.”
Eye on Sacramento is very public in its criticism and is regularly quoted by local media. It has filed 63 public records requests to the city since 2014, costing the city clerk’s office an estimated $24,000 in staff time, according to the clerk.
Does that make it fair game for the same kind of jabs it tosses at the politicians?
“This started as a simple question of curiosity and because they’ve stonewalled me, it just leads to more questions,” Schenirer said. “At some level, it’s kind of silly.”