Foon Rhee

Is Sacramento ethics reform finally going to happen?

Mayor Darrell Steinberg attends his first City Council meeting on Jan. 5. He has made transparency a top priority and supports a beefed-up ethics code.
Mayor Darrell Steinberg attends his first City Council meeting on Jan. 5. He has made transparency a top priority and supports a beefed-up ethics code.

We’re more than two years into a push on ethics and transparency at Sacramento City Hall, and what is there to show for it?

Not a whole heck of a lot. But that is about to change, finally and thankfully.

Tuesday, a City Council committee put its final touches on a beefed-up ethics code and a new ethics commission that will be up for a vote by the full council on March 7.

Now, the pressure is on new Mayor Darrell Steinberg to help carry the plan over the finish line. He supports the ethics proposals, though some critics say they don’t go far enough. He sent the right signals by focusing on transparency in his first full council meeting in office last month and advocating a stronger “sunshine ordinance” that will also be voted on March 7.

Steinberg knows he needs public trust to make real progress on his ambitious to-do list on jobs, the homeless, youth services and much more. But confidence in government is not very high these days, and it hasn’t helped that ethics reform has dragged on this long.

So far, the most significant accomplishment is that in November, voters approved a measure creating a citizens commission that will draw City Council districts, though that won’t happen until after the 2020 census.

Instead of looking back, some council members and good-government types prefer to focus on what is likely to be approved, and who can blame them? Nicolas Heidorn, policy and legislation counsel for California Common Cause, told the committee that the proposal is a “wonderful” advance.

“We’re very pleased with where this is going,” he said.

The lengthy process has produced some improvements, including those pushed by the advocacy groups and championed by Steinberg. Just added to the proposed ethics code are protections from retaliation for whistleblowers and an anti-nepotism policy that bans employees from hiring or supervising a relative, roommate or romantic partner.

The ethics code will cover all city employees, including elected officials, charter officers and appointees. The new five-person ethics commission will have a budget not to exceed $350,000.

A compliance officer will focus on training, education and monitoring. That includes sexual harassment, which became a big issue in 2015 after allegations made by city employees against then-Mayor Kevin Johnson and Councilman Allen Warren.

The compliance officer will also take ethics complaints, but an outside evaluator will screen them, recommend to the ethics commission which cases should be investigated, conduct those investigations and recommend any penalties. While the commission will enforce the ethics code, the city is seeking permission from the Legislature to contract out enforcement of campaign-finance cases to the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

It has been a frustrating and rocky road to get this far.

These “good government” changes were packaged with Kevin Johnson’s bid for “strong mayor” powers. But voters rejected the measure in November 2014.

Immediately afterward, Johnson appointed an ad hoc council committee on good governance and transparency, but it met behind closed doors. That hypocrisy is still astounding to me. (As part of the reforms, Steinberg is calling for ad hoc committees to meet in public.)

Then in 2015, the citizen groups that had joined forces behind City Hall reform had a bitter falling out. While Eye on Sacramento jumped ship, the local League of Women Voters and Common Cause have worked with the city and are basically on board.

The groups still want to make an “egregious and malicious” violation of the ethics code a misdemeanor, but the City Attorney’s Office warned against it and on Tuesday the committee left it out of the ordinance.

The mayor is reviewing that proposal. A spokesman said Wednesday that while Steinberg doesn’t want technical violations of the ethics code to be a crime, violations of the anti-nepotism or whistleblower provisions might warrant a misdemeanor charge. That sounds like a compromise the council should consider.

Despite the additions, Eye on Sacramento still has major concerns. Craig Powell, the group’s president, told me Wednesday that the ethics code is still too narrow and that the ethics commission isn’t truly independent because it would be appointed and funded by the council. The panel also needs more teeth, including the power to seek an official’s removal for serious corruption, he says.

I’m not sure on the particular critiques, but Powell is right that after all the time and energy spent, the end result must be an ethics code and commission that actually works. If it’s a sham, that would erode public trust in City Hall even more – the last thing Steinberg and the council should want.

The push to rewrite the rules at City Hall isn’t over.

City Clerk Shirley Concolino says the city’s regulations for lobbyists are also in “dire need” of updating and she plans to have a proposal before the ethics commission up and running.

And Tuesday, the Law and Legislation committee started talking about possibly overhauling campaign-contribution limits.

Councilman Jeff Harris wants to slash the limits for council races – from $1,650 to $500 from individuals and from $5,500 to $2,750 for political committees – which he says will allow more people to run. But Councilman Eric Guerra argued that lower limits would increase the influence of outside groups that aren’t under the limits, and said he’s more interested in public financing of campaigns.

The committee agreed to hold off until after the ethics code and commission are done, but Harris vowed to press the council to take up his idea. The issue of campaign money is complex and affects special-interest groups, politicians and local elections.

If city leaders thought ethics reform was contentious and time-consuming, they’re in store for much more.

Foon Rhee: 916-321-1913, @foonrhee