Sacramento steps toward a better ethics policy

Vice Mayor Angelique Ashby talks with Mayor Kevin Johnson.
Vice Mayor Angelique Ashby talks with Mayor Kevin Johnson. hamezcua@sacbee.com

The Sacramento City Council will vote Tuesday night on a plan to direct its staff to create a detailed ethics package, a step that is worthy of encouragement and support.

The goal would be for the components to come back to the council in three to six months for votes.

Mayor Kevin Johnson appointed the committee that came up with the broad recommendations. Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, Councilman Jay Schenirer, and representatives of Common Cause of California and the League of Women Voters, among others, put the proposal together.

The committee is urging an ethics overhaul that would include revisions of the city’s campaign finance ordinance, and its gift, nepotism and revolving-door policies. Newly elected council members would need to complete ethics training within 60 days of taking office, and undergo anti-sexual harassment training every two years.

The city would seek to enhance transparency by placing an array of public records in a central location on a searchable city-run website. Campaign finance, lobbying reports and other related information would become more readily available.

If, as expected, the council approves the package, City Clerk Shirley Concolino would develop a plan to create an office of ethics compliance and a five-member ethics commission that would investigate and adjudicate complaints about campaign finances, lobbying and conflicts of interest. The mayor would appoint the commissioners, subject to council confirmation.

An important component would include a 2018 ballot measure for an independent redistricting commission. The 13-member commission would draw council boundaries after the 2020 census, when boundaries normally are redrawn. To guard against self-serving lines, members would be barred from running for a council seat for 10 years.

Johnson had included good-government provisions in his strong-mayor proposal last year. Even though voters rejected the strong-mayor proposal, Johnson pressed ahead with the ethics package.

The measure took on greater urgency when members of advocacy group Eye on Sacramento suggested they place their own ethics proposal on the 2016 ballot. Whether or not there is a competing measure on some future ballot, the Johnson-appointed committee’s plan could be far-reaching.

An improved ethics policy, greater transparency and a strong ethics commission all are important. However, much of an ethics commission’s job entails cleaning messes after bad acts occur.

The hope would be that council members conduct themselves properly to begin with. That’s where voters come in. The first line of defense against self-serving politicians always is an informed and engaged electorate.