The definition of good government is transparency, but how can you be transparent if you meet in secret?
This question and many others elicit silence at City Hall in what has been a peculiar summer.
At this point, Mayor Kevin Johnson and members of the City Council should be basking in the city’s resurgence. On Tuesday, The New York Times took note of Sacramento’s new energy, publishing a complimentary story on how the downtown arena has spurred a flurry of development in long-dormant buildings.
It’s a true story. It’s a great story. But it’s also a complicated story.
Johnson is the driver behind the city’s new vigor – the key player in the good and the bad. The good in Sacramento is as exciting as the bad is disappointing. The good could not have happened without Johnson; the bad didn’t have to happen at all.
He’s a man you want to root for, but who trips over the same flaws that have dogged him for years. Without Kevin Johnson, the Kings would be gone. Sleep Train Arena would be a dump surrounded by land controlled by rich people who cared nothing about Sacramento. The downtown would still be anchored by a dying mall flanked by abandoned buildings.
More than anyone else, Johnson has promoted the idea of Sacramento as a place where good things are happening – and he has helped make that idea a reality. He’s been the right person at the right time for Sacramento.
But a part of Johnson always shrouds his moves in unnecessary secrecy. A part of him always demands absolute loyalty from those closest to him. It’s a culture that has grown more pervasive at City Hall as Johnson has grown more powerful.
It’s why Johnson’s answer for critics who call for ethics reforms at City Hall is an ad hoc committee that meets in secret. Good government debated in secret. It would be funny if it wasn’t sad, and if a majority of the council favorable to Johnson hadn’t gone along despite the glaring irony.
It’s one thing for city officials to negotiate with the Kings, or any other private business, behind closed doors before the details are debated in public. Even if you took the Kings out of the equation, no company seeking to do business with Sacramento would want to conduct its initial dealings out in public. You let city negotiators hammer out the details in private and then you present them to the public for a debate and a vote. Every city in America does it this way.
But an ethics committee has nothing to do with private business. It’s the work of the people. It’s an extension of the public trust. You close it to the public and you create questions instead of providing answers. You create a perception problem when one doesn’t need to exist.
The other perception problem the mayor created was his use of city staff to help him wrest control of a national group of African American mayors. Again, Johnson could have defused this situation if he had come forward himself and spoken plainly about this – instead of letting spokesmen do the talking for him.
It would have been much more powerful if Johnson, an African American leader, had spoken directly about his desire to take over National Conference of Black Mayors, a civil-rights-era group that had fallen on hard times. What’s the worst anyone could have said about this? That he shouldn’t have used staffers for this work?
Such a critique made mostly by a bunch of white people in Sacramento would have sounded small if Johnson had faced this issue head-on instead of seeming like he was sneaking around.
I never will understand this side of a hugely successful native son of Sacramento – the best prep athlete this city has ever seen and a child of poverty who used his athletic skills to build a life of achievement.
Johnson has been quiet since he was accused of sexual harassment a few months ago. The case was found to have no merit by the city, but questions remained about whether Johnson and his accuser reached a private settlement in secret. Then Allen Warren, his close ally on the council, was also accused of sexual harassment.
Again, the council majority loyal to Johnson remained quiet. Someone needed to say that even though Warren deserves his presumption of innocence until the process is resolved, City Hall was going to take a serious look at sexual harassment guidelines. But at first, nobody did. In that void of leadership, several citizens’ groups began making a lot of noise.
It took Councilman Steve Hansen – not part of Johnson’s close group of allies – to finally speak up. Some groused that Hansen was being political himself. OK, but somebody on that council had to say something, if only to prove to women working at City Hall that their concerns wouldn’t be swept under the rug.
When there is only silence, serious questions flourish. In typical Johnson fashion, he’s pushing forward as if nothing is wrong at all, and as if those asking legitimate questions are just detractors working against his desire to lift Sacramento.
The reality beyond the one Johnson seeks to control is that – too often – his worst enemy is himself.