Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Mangan gun range debacle reflects city’s muddled line of authority

If I were allowed to curse in this column, today would be the day.

I would curse bureaucrats in the city of Sacramento for sitting on information that a city-owned gun range is contaminated with dangerous levels of lead. City officials knew this for years and said nothing to the working-class residents near Mangan Park, which is between Sacramento Executive Airport and Fruitridge Road.

Not only were residents not informed that there were hazardous amounts of lead dust in the building and on the roof of what was once James G. Mangan Rifle and Pistol Range – the city didn’t order tests of the soil around the now-shuttered gun range until April Fools’ Day 2016.

Yeah, April Fools’ Day.

They only ordered the soil tests after Ryan Lillis of The Sacramento Bee began asking questions about lead contamination. Until then, this gun range near a playground where families go every day had sat untouched despite a March 2012 report from a city-hired consultant that said the range’s ventilation system appeared to be sending unfiltered air from inside to the surrounding environs. As Lillis dug deeper, he discovered city records of more than 20 samples taken between 2006 and 2014 that showed lead dust inside the range exceeding the state Department of Public Health threshold.

The city tested areas immediately outside the building in July 2014 and found unhealthy concentrations of lead dust on two roof vents. A consulting group hired by the city conducted more tests in November 2014; it also found high levels of lead dust in the building and in several spots on the roof. City Manager John Shirey ordered the gun range closed on Christmas Eve 2014.

But it wasn’t until last week, nearly 480 days after it was closed, that a chain-link fence was placed around the perimeter of the gun range where cops and gun enthusiasts had fired their weapons since the early 1960s.

The soil and surface tests prompted by Lillis’ reporting found hazardous levels of lead on a walkway leading to the range – an area that anyone could have accessed until last week. There were hazardous levels in the soil 5 feet from the exterior wall of the gun range and in other locations surrounding the building. Thankfully, lead levels found in the park’s playground, picnic area, archery range and around its public pool were not found to be dangerous.

It’s a good sign that Sacramento County’s Environmental Management Division finally has taken charge of the situation. But why wasn’t the county called in last year? Or the year before? Or the year before that? Or the year before that? Why did it take a Bee reporter to prompt public notice and prudent precautions that should have occurred long ago? Who is accountable to the residents whose health might have been compromised because of exposure to dangerous levels of lead?

Right now, city officials are handling this debacle the way they often do when things go haywire – they are circling the wagons. They are protecting themselves against liability. The city has planned a community meeting at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Centennial United Methodist Church on Freeport Boulevard. But the time lag between the first warning signs and the city’s disclosure to the public speaks to a muddled line of accountability at City Hall.

The parks director for the city was Jim Combs, but he’s retired now. A new parks director is now in place as lead has become an issue, but he wasn’t in charge when the city was dragging its feet on what to do with the gun range. The parks director reports to Shirey, who is not elected by voters. According to Lillis’ reporting, there were discussions about what to do about the gun range – around $1.7 million in repairs – but it was determined to be too expensive.

This is an issue that should have been debated publicly years ago but wasn’t. Aren’t city bureaucrats – Shirey and everyone working under him – accountable to taxpayers?

Not completely, but that’s the way you wanted it. The mayor and the eight council members make policy and technically oversee Shirey, but the city charter gives him the authority to effectively run the city. Some people don’t know this, but the mayor’s position doesn’t have much more authority than one council vote and the authority to appoint council members to committees. This system has been abandoned by many large cities in California, but Sacramento is different.

In November 2014, city voters rejected Measure L – a proposal to take authority away from the city manager and give it to the mayor. Truthfully, Measure L lost because 70 percent of city voters stayed home on Election Day. They didn’t care about the city charter or the city manager or who runs what.

A majority of those who did vote on Measure L were intent on blocking Mayor Kevin Johnson from being directly in charge of the city manager, city attorney and city employees. Dubbed the strong-mayor initiative, the campaign against Measure L never focused on a legitimate question: Shouldn’t a large city like Sacramento establish a direct line of accountability between their vote and who is running the city?

But when it became all about stopping Johnson’s putative “power grab,” the issue of accountability was sacrificed to the lowest common denominator of negative politics.

Part of that is on voters. For all of its big-city problems and potential, Sacramento is still very provincial. Many people only care about the issues directly affecting their neighborhoods and don’t care if the city is run by bureaucrats most would be hard pressed to name. Yet those faceless bureaucrats run the town. On some days, that doesn’t matter. Today it does.

Shirey is a fine man, and he’s mostly done a good job as city manger. But he was brought to Sacramento by a small group of insiders. His hiring was approved by a majority of the City Council in 2011, but that process was opaque and obscure. Shirey does report to the entire council, but that process of accountability is cumbersome and subject to the politics of whim.

When something goes wrong, you wonder who really is in charge. Johnson was the voters’ choice, but Shirey handles the city’s day-to-day operations. Councilman Jay Schenirer is working to deal with the lead contamination, but he clearly wasn’t aware of the problem in his district until late in the process. Meanwhile, fearing lawsuits, the city attorney clamps down on the flow of information about the issue. City Hall members pass the buck among themselves, and transparency takes a huge beating.

It doesn’t just stop there. Shirey hires the police chief. As good as Sacramento’s Police Department is, the department itself is not racially diverse. For a long time, officials in Sacramento have paid lip service to this – but not much else. Of course, the mayor or other council members can make this an issue. But unless a council majority can be established, nothing happens.

If the mayor – the only citywide elected official – had a direct line of authority over the police chief, he or she could influence the department a lot quicker and more effectively than a council of part-time elected officials.

If the city manager reported to the mayor right now, there would be a direct line of authority on the issue of contamination at Mangan Park. The mayor would be feeling more heat. He would be sharing that heat with the city manager and with everyone underneath him. Presumably, the mayor wouldn’t be blindsided by the issue the way Schenirer seems to have been.

Right now, City Hall has been able to deflect accountability with the Mangan Park debacle. Right now, we don’t know exactly why city officials waited years until a Bee reporter forced them to do their jobs. It’s the way things are run in Sacramento, and sometimes it makes you want to curse.

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