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Editorial: Sacramento City Council is completely failing a major test of accountability

Sacramento City Hall started raking in higher sales taxes as soon as it could. But officials are taking their sweet time keeping a key promise to voters – a citizens committee to oversee how the money is spent.

On Tuesday – a full year after voters approved Measure U and seven months since shoppers started paying the half-cent hike in local sales taxes – a City Council committee is finally scheduled to nominate the oversight panel’s members. It’ll take at least another two or three weeks for Mayor Kevin Johnson to make the appointments and the full council to confirm them.

That’s plain embarrassing.

In its defense, the city says the panel’s primary duty under a council resolution is to look over an annual audit, which won’t be available until January. Voters, however, were given the impression in the ballot language and a city “fact” sheet that the committee would have a bigger role to “review the revenue and expenditure of funds from the tax.” Since it doesn’t exist, the committee has had no say in how the $27 million a year is being spent.

The city also blames the delay on difficulty finding candidates willing to serve. Though the application deadline was extended twice, only 10 people have applied for five seats. For the spot reserved for a certified public accountant, only one person has applied. Yet, since council members didn’t make it a priority to get the committee going, can they really be surprised that public interest waned?

To make matters worse, the council has also punted on another piece of urgent, unfinished business from the sales tax measure.

As we, the Sacramento County grand jury and others pointed out, the ballot arguments for Measure U were badly botched. After putting it on the ballot, the council took the very unusual step of reserving both the “pro” and “con” arguments in the official voters guide. That blocked any outside group from making the “no” case.

It got messier. Mayor Johnson, who was supposed to author the “con” argument, missed the submission deadline. So the sample ballots went out without any argument against the measure. The three council members assigned to write the “pro” argument got the police and fire chiefs to put their names on it, believing it would be more convincing to voters.

While it was all technically legal, it was a complete sham. In June, the grand jury urged the council to stop the political games, which also happened on city ballot measures in 2010. In its recommendations, the grand jury said the council should ban council members from authoring arguments on both sides of council-placed ballot measures and should require that council members designated to write ballot arguments actually do so.

So what has the council done? It barely beat the Sept. 28 deadline to respond to the grand jury – and all it pledged was to study the issues for another three months and “identify opportunities for improvement.” In other words, there’s no commitment to change anything.

Also Tuesday, the council is to take its final vote to put a strong mayor proposal on the November 2014 ballot, which means that later this month it could pick council members to write both “pro” and “con” arguments. Is the council really going to completely ignore the grand jury and disrespect voters by stacking the deck on ballot arguments for another highly contentious issue?

City officials talk a good game about transparency and accountability. As Measure U shows, sometimes it’s only words.