City Beat

Sacramento mayor’s takeover of national group was ‘messy’

Sacramento city officials released 959 more pages of documents Thursday about Mayor Kevin Johnson’s fight two years ago for control of the National Conference of Black Mayors, revealing a few more details about the internecine battle.

In one email to some of the now-defunct group’s members, Johnson warned, “It will be messy.”

The documents were released in response to Public Records Act requests by The Sacramento Bee and Sacramento News & Review. They follow on the heels of 6,100 pages of emails and 16 documents released earlier this month by Johnson’s private attorneys.

Together, the documents show Johnson’s efforts to take over and remold the black mayors group depended heavily on the backs of city staff and volunteers, who used official city titles, letterhead and the city seal in their correspondence and presentations. One of the mayor’s volunteers, Stephanie Mash, later was offered a $120,000 job as head of a new group the mayor was forming, the African American Mayors Association.

Johnson spokesman Ben Sosenko has argued there is nothing wrong with local staff working on national mayor’s group issues, saying the mayor’s national profile could reap money or program benefits for Sacramento.

According to Sacramento budget documents, the City Council in 2013 gave Johnson a vacant Department of Public Works position with an $88,200 annual salary for two years to work on U.S. Conference of Mayors, National Conference of Black Mayors and other national issues. It was filled by Josh Rosa, who has since left.

Loyola Law School professor and political ethics expert Jessica Levinson said Johnson’s national activities are not problematic if they help the city. “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.”

Many of the documents released Thursday involved court filings. Some, however, showed glimpses of the infighting, including dueling emails between Johnson and former NCBM executive director Vanessa Williams. Williams was ousted by the Johnson-led group after an audit found hundreds of thousands of dollars in questionable expenses. Each accused the other of “untruths.”

Johnson’s attorneys have declined so far to release another 158 emails and documents in the matter, contending those communications are exempt from public release due to attorney-client privilege.

Attorneys for the News & Review, a named defendant in the mayor’s suit along with the city of Sacramento, will review the list to determine which of the emails and documents, if any, they agree are legally privileged.

Although The Bee submitted a request for the documents, the newspaper was not listed as a defendant in the mayor’s lawsuit after agreeing to allow the city attorney to independently determine whether correspondence was subject to attorney-client privilege. Michael Benner, senior deputy city attorney for Sacramento, has indicated that the city has no authority to protect documents under that privilege if a private attorney is involved.

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