It is rare that a government chooses to reform itself, and rarer still that self-initiated reform is meaningful. It is far more common for reform to come from the outside, but the political landscape is littered with the remains of outsider “reforms” that failed due to lack of commitment from those being reformed, or simply failed to be enacted at all.
There is a third way, where government is willing to reform and tough-minded outside groups engage to ensure reform is meaningful and effective. It requires having straightforward conversations about core values and an understanding that there are many valid opinions and models of reform. It requires ongoing work to ensure reform is implemented and renewed.
Sacramento’s ethics reform efforts have followed this third way.
Common Cause and the League of Women Voters have spent nearly 150 years encouraging citizen participation and holding government accountable. Gary Winuk was one of the toughest ethics prosecutors the state has seen. Bill Edgar is a former city manager who understands how the city ticks and knows the importance of ethical city government. Combined with the critical participation of community groups and members of the public, we formed the Sacramento Integrity Project and drafted four comprehensive reform proposals.
While the third way is not easy, it produces more real and lasting reform. We had city partners and engaged in hard discussions about bringing fundamental change to City Hall. Because the reforms will be theirs, ours and the public’s, there is a commitment to making them work.
For the first time in its history, the city has committed to creating:
▪ An independent citizens’ redistricting commission to take the politics out of drawing City Council districts.
▪ A sunshine ordinance to provide greater transparency in city business and decision-making.
▪ A comprehensive ethics code to ensure decisions are made in the public interest, not for personal gain.
▪ An independent ethics commission with the powers to enforce the ethics code and hold officials accountable.
Less than one percent of California cities have these reforms. The city has committed to delivering each core reform and now, not piecemeal or at some vague future time. Recent media pieces have misrepresented these proposals and the process. So let’s be clear.
First, the ethics commission will be independent, with term limits and strong eligibility requirements. Commissioners must be confirmed by a two-thirds council vote after mayoral review. Investigations will be conducted and penalties imposed entirely independent of the city.
Second, the ethics code will be comprehensive. It will incorporate state ethics laws not as weakness, but as a strength to allow for local investigation and prosecution of such violations.
Third, the process has been open. Every item was posted in advance and received a full public hearing.
Finally, the proposal adopted by the council in September is only a framework. Staff will return with a detailed draft ordinance, which will rightly undergo another round of public review and comment before it can become law.
We will continue to bring what we heard in our public forums to this discussion and we encourage Sacramentans to participate in hearings on these final proposals. Together we can make these reforms in our capital city a model for the state.
Paula Lee is president of the League of Women Voters Sacramento. Nicolas Heidorn is California legislation and policy counsel for Common Cause. Gary Winuk is former chief enforcement officer for the state Fair Political Practices Commission.