As the saying goes, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good – and there’s a lot of good in the proposals for a stronger ethics code and “sunshine” ordinance.
The Sacramento City Council should approve them Tuesday evening as a significant step forward for transparency and accountability at City Hall.
The ethics code would cover all city employees, including elected officials, charter officers and appointees. The code would be overseen by a new five-person ethics commission with the help of a compliance officer who would handle ethics complaints and an outside evaluator who would screen and investigate them. If it finds violations, the commission could issue fines of as much as $5,000.
The ethics program, which also includes training on sexual harassment, has a budget of as much as $350,000, money well spent.
The “sunshine” ordinance would require ad hoc council committees – which were used during Kevin Johnson’s time as mayor to debate controversial issues behind closed doors – to meet in public. It would also require council members and officials to use their city email addresses for city business, which would make them public records. This became an issue when Johnson sought to withhold emails on personal and campaign accounts with city staff about his controversial takeover of a black mayors’ group.
And the transparency ordinance would require council members to disclose any payments made at their behest to nonprofits before voting on items affecting the donors.
The local League of Women Voters and California Common Cause support the ethics code and sunshine ordinance and deserve credit for working on them for more than two years and pushing city officials to improve them. For instance, the ethics proposal now includes protections for whistleblowers and an anti-nepotism policy. Mayor Darrell Steinberg rightly supported the stronger provisions.
Still, some critics say the ethics commission isn’t independent and powerful enough, since it doesn’t have the authority to seek an official’s removal.
But those shortcomings could be addressed later, if necessary, and aren’t a reason to reject what’s before the City Council now. There can be no more excuses to stall ethics reform.