City Beat

Watchdog group seeks ethics reforms at Sacramento City Hall

Sacramento City Hall
Sacramento City Hall Sacramento Bee file

Arguing Sacramento City Hall is suffering from a “vacuum of accountability,” a local watchdog group released a series of ethics reform recommendations Wednesday it hopes the city will adopt.

Most notably, the proposal includes the creation of an ethics commission that would have the power to subpoena city records and call witnesses under oath. In cases in which the commission finds elected officials are guilty of infractions, the commission could censure, fine or seek to remove those officials from office.

Craig Powell, president of watchdog group Eye on Sacramento, told reporters at a morning briefing at the Sutter Club that his group would begin presenting the recommendations to city officials Thursday morning. If the City Council does not enact the core elements of the plan, Powell’s group is planning to gather signatures to place the package on the November 2016 ballot.

The early work for that effort has already begun, including research on the language of a ballot measure.

We don’t have any illusions that City Council members are willing to give up power.

Craig Powell, president, Eye on Sacramento

Collecting the needed 32,500 signatures could cost as much as $150,000. One potential source for that funding, Powell said, is Chris Rufer, the wealthy agribusinessman who helped bankroll the unsuccessful effort to place the public subsidy of a new downtown sports arena on the ballot last year.

Powell said he was hopeful the City Council would enact the reform package, but isn’t confident.

“We don’t have any illusions that City Council members are willing to give up power,” he said.

A City Council committee formed by Mayor Kevin Johnson has met behind closed doors for several months as it explores its own ethics recommendations. A report from that committee is expected later this month.

“The city has been working for months with citizens on proposals to make city government work better and be more transparent,” said the mayor’s spokesman, Ben Sosenko. “While we always appreciate input from special interest groups, our work will reflect the values of all of the city’s citizens rather than those with a narrow political agenda.”

Eye on Sacramento’s reform package was released in the wake of high-profile scandals at City Hall.

Johnson and Councilman Allen Warren have both been accused this year by city employees of sexual harassment. The city attorney and an outside law firm both determined the case against Johnson was unsubstantiated, but an investigation into the claim against Warren is ongoing.

Johnson’s use of city staffers and private email accounts to gain control of the National Conference of Black Mayors came under scrutiny this summer. And the sexual harassment claim against Warren also included an allegation that he requested city staffers work on business for his private development firm, New Faze.

The Eye on Sacramento plan would require that ad hoc committees – such as the City Council committee vetting ethics ideas – meet in public. It would also allow for longer public comment periods at City Council meetings, restrict council members from voting on matters that benefit major campaign contributors and require city emails to be retained for 10 years.

The city was also taken to court this summer for its plan to delete 80 million emails from its servers. A judge ruled in July that the city must keep 15 million of those emails.

The proposal would also place caps on behests – contributions that elected officials solicit for nonprofits. Johnson has raised millions of dollars in behests for a variety of organizations since taking office.

Members of the ethics commission would likely be appointed by retired judges under Eye on Sacramento’s plan. So would members of an independent commission tasked with drawing City Council district boundaries.

Eye on Sacramento conducted 10 public forums this year to collect public input before releasing its plan.

Reform changes sought by Eye on Sacramento

  • Ethics Commission appointed by retired judges that can fine, censure elected officials
  • Redistricting Commission that draws new boundaries for City Council districts
  • Longer public comment periods at City Council meetings
  • Caps on “behests,” donations solicited by elected officials for nonprofits and charities