City Beat

Sacramento watchdog group threatens to sue city, councilman

Local government watchdog group Eye on Sacramento fired back Monday at Councilman Jay Schenirer, seen here in 2013, saying his demands to see its membership and donor list amounted to retaliation against the group’s criticism of City Hall.
Local government watchdog group Eye on Sacramento fired back Monday at Councilman Jay Schenirer, seen here in 2013, saying his demands to see its membership and donor list amounted to retaliation against the group’s criticism of City Hall. Sacramento Bee file

Local government watchdog group Eye on Sacramento fired back Monday at Councilman Jay Schenirer, saying his demands to see its membership and donor list amounted to retaliation against the group’s criticism of City Hall. The group also threatened to sue Schenirer and the city if the demands don’t stop.

Schenirer said Monday that Eye on Sacramento’s decision not to release the information was “unfortunate,” but that he would stop pressing for the information to be made public.

In a sharply worded letter to Schenirer, Eye on Sacramento attorney Paul Nicholas Boylan wrote that the councilman was “chilling EOS and its member/donors’ free speech rights” and that the group would not provide its membership and donor lists. Boylan also wrote Schenirer was engaging in “an unlawful campaign to harass EOS and to discourage its donors and members from exercising their constitutional rights.”

“If they continue with this, it is our obligation to stop it so people out there are reassured that when they contribute to a group like Eye on Sacramento, when they agree with their goals and approve of their results, they can freely exercise their free speech rights and they don’t have to worry about anyone knocking on their door and questioning them about it later,” Boylan said in an interview.

Eye on Sacramento has been critical of several City Hall initiatives since it was founded in 2011. Most recently, it has described a proposed expansion of the Sacramento Convention Center as a waste of money. The group has also pushed for more transparency in city government and blasted the City Council’s decision to approve a financing deal for Golden 1 Center without a vote of the public.

Schenirer has called some of the group’s findings “skewed.” But he said he has worked with Eye on Sacramento in the past, including on an ordinance that requires the city to provide a 10-day notice before the City Council votes on city contracts of more than $1 million.

“My belief is that folks in Sacramento deserve to know who is funding this organization,” Schenirer said. “They take very public positions through reports they issue and they attempt to garner media attention. It’s not about retaliation and it’s not about me – it’s about transparency and the public’s right to know.”

Nicolas Heidorn, policy and legislative counsel for government reform group California Common Cause, said “an organization should not be singled out and asked to provide additional transparency without cause.”

“If there is a concern that an organization has not been disclosing information that it should under city lobbying and ethics laws, then the matter should be referred to the city attorney,” he said. “An elected official should not be investigating on their own.”

Eye on Sacramento has reported less than $50,000 in gross annual receipts to the Internal Revenue Service in each of the past two tax years. As a result, Eye on Sacramento was only required to provide basic information about itself, including the name of its principal officer, a mailing address, a website and whether it was active in that year. Longtime Sacramento activist Dennis Neufeld is listed as the principal officer in the group’s 2015 tax forms. Craig Powell, a Sacramento attorney and landlord, was listed in the 2014 documents. Their home addresses were listed as the organization’s mailing address.

Boylan said he was prohibited by attorney-client privilege from saying whether he is being paid by Eye on Sacramento. But he said the organization would likely seek a reimbursement of its legal fees from the city if it filed a lawsuit.

Ryan Lillis: 916-321-1085, @Ryan_Lillis

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