Where Steinberg is right to push for stronger transparency

Darrell Steinberg sworn in as Sacramento’s 56th mayor

Six months after winning a decisive victory in the June primary, Darrell Steinberg was sworn in as mayor on Tuesday night.
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Six months after winning a decisive victory in the June primary, Darrell Steinberg was sworn in as mayor on Tuesday night.

First impressions and first steps matter. New Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg has been around long enough to know that, so it’s smart politics for him to push for more transparency in his first full City Council meeting.

It’s also the right policy.

While the draft “sunshine ordinance” going before the council Thursday would make city government more open, it can and should be strengthened along the lines suggested by Steinberg and advocacy groups before the final vote next month.

For instance, the mayor and good-government groups want council ad hoc committees to meet in the open. Under former Mayor Kevin Johnson, these panels were used far too often to discuss touchy issues out of the public eye. In November 2014, he even appointed one – believe it or not – to study transparency and “good governance.”

Because these ad hoc panels include less than a majority of council members, they’re not subject to the state’s open-meetings law. Under the current proposal, ad hocs could still meet behind closed doors, but the chairperson would have to report to the full council in open session after each meeting.

That isn’t good enough.

It is much better for controversial proposals to be vetted by the council’s standing committees, which meet in public and which hear from interest groups and residents. While their defenders say the ad hocs allow more honest discussion of hot-button topics, nothing stops a couple of council members from talking privately.

The council should also support a proposal to require the mayor and council members to more quickly disclose “behests” – unlimited donations from corporations, foundations and wealthy individuals that elected officials direct to a favored charity or nonprofit. Johnson used behests aggressively to push his agenda on clean energy and education, but they also got him in hot water. The state Fair Political Practices Commission fined him for not properly reporting gifts.

Under state law, behests of $5,000 or more must be reported within 30 days. Common Cause and the League of Women Voters are pushing for earlier disclosure if the council is voting on an issue related to the donor. That makes good sense.

Steinberg also is expected to encourage council members to put proposed amendments in writing before council meetings. Council members themselves have not been happy when extensive changes are unveiled with little time for anyone to study them.

Yes, the changes will make life more complicated for council members. But they would help build public trust.

Steinberg – who has an ambitious agenda on jobs, homelessness, the riverfront and much more – also knows how essential that trust is to getting things done.

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