Sacramento needs real ethics reform, not city’s fake version

Sacramento City Council members, posing in May with youth ambassadors from China, are pushing ahead with their version of ethics and transparency reform.
Sacramento City Council members, posing in May with youth ambassadors from China, are pushing ahead with their version of ethics and transparency reform.

Amid much fanfare and self-congratulation, the Sacramento City Council voted last month to proceed with a package of so-called ethics and open government reforms.

Befitting a City Hall culture that pays lip service to public engagement, the package was rushed through just five days after a secretive council ad hoc committee announced them, following zero public input. The council bypassed its standard process of vetting ordinances through its Law and Legislation committee – a committee that actually meets in public.

The rush was on to act quickly, probably to counter the prospect of a citizen-driven ballot initiative that would offer more robust reforms than the window dressing offered by the council.

Council proponents of the package gained political cover by co-opting two groups – Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, whose representatives had been selectively invited to meet behind closed doors with city staff. Eager for a deal with the city, the two groups gave their blessing to a package that is thin gruel to those seriously concerned with the city’s deteriorating ethical climate.

In early September, Eye on Sacramento released a set of proposed ethics, transparency and redistricting reforms. They were the direct product of 10 well-attended public forums sponsored by 23 community groups, a survey of practices in other cities and months of research by four study groups that included members of the public.

The contrast between our robust proposals and the council’s tepid package could not be more stark.

The council’s ethics commission would be a $450,000-a-year gutless wonder, lacking the independence, authority and enforcement powers needed to respond to the ethics problems we’re seeing at City Hall.

Its members would be appointed directly by the mayor and council – the very officials whose conduct the commission is supposed to scrutinize. It couldn’t select its own investigator or lawyer. It wouldn’t have the authority to choose what investigations to initiate and what complaints to adjudicate. All such tasks would be performed by a city employee answerable ultimately to the council.

The commission’s jurisdiction would be largely limited to matters already subject to enforcement by the state Fair Political Practices Commission. It would ignore weighty matters such as claims against council members for harassment or bullying of city staff; council members who vote on matters that financially benefit their major campaign contributors; the problem of corporations seeking to buy influence by contributing literally millions of dollars to nonprofits favored by council members; and officials who misuse city resources for personal gain.

These are not theoretical matters.

In the past 18 months, three council members have been sued or been the subject of claims filed by city employees, including two members of the ad hoc committee on good governance. The public deserves to know if their elected officials have violated the public trust and abused their positions of power.

The council’s commission would emulate other ethics commissions in California that have, by and large, been ineffective in curtailing misconduct. The San Francisco grand jury called that city’s ethics commission a “sleeping watchdog.” San Diego has an ethics commission, but it lacked the authority to deal with former Mayor Bob Filner, who was accused of assaulting dozens of women, creating an impasse that paralyzed city government.

Like San Diego’s, the council’s commission would lack the ultimate enforcement tool – the authority to initiate court proceedings to remove officials found guilty of engaging in corrupt practices or other egregious misconduct.

If backers of the council’s faux ethics package believe it will be effective in dealing with the misbehavior of city officials – or satisfy the public’s desire for real reform at City Hall – they’re very much mistaken.

Craig Powell is president of Eye on Sacramento, a local government watchdog and policy group. Erik Smitt is its policy director.