The Sacramento Bee
Steinberg likely to push greater government transparency during first meeting
By Anita Chabria
At his first full meeting presiding over the Sacramento City Council on Thursday, Mayor Darrell Steinberg will push for adoption of government-transparency measures that go beyond a proposed “sunshine” ordinance that’s been more than a year in the making.
The proposed ordinance is designed to allow better public access to city information. Many of the recommendations are already in place, such as an online records portal and meeting agendas posted five days in advance.
Steinberg said Monday he intends to ask council members to consider making the ordinance more robust before passing a final version in coming weeks.
Steinberg, who has packed his calendar for his first three months in office with issues including homelessness and developing the riverfront, said he wanted transparency to be his “week one priority” because he thinks increasing public confidence and engagement will help him implement his other plans.
“We have a very aggressive agenda, and everything we want to accomplish flows from having the public’s trust,” Steinberg said. “Transparency builds confidence both in the process and the result. … People can accept a decision that doesn’t go their way if they feel they’ve been heard and they feel the process has been open.”
His suggested additions will include requiring that “all city business should be conducted on city servers” to make it available for public disclosure; making the council working groups called ad hoc committees open to the public; forcing council members to more quickly disclose controversial “behest” donations; publishing public comments online; and pushing council members to put their ideas in writing rather than announcing them from the dais during meetings.
Gary Winuk, an ethics and elections attorney and former chief of enforcement for the California Fair Political Practices Commission, said Steinberg’s proposed amendments “are all fantastic changes.”
One of the most controversial changes Steinberg said he plans to introduce is opening up ad hoc committee meetings to the public and requiring public notice.
Ad hoc committees usually involve four council members tasked with examining a specific issue and making recommendations for action to the full council. They do not have policymaking power. Ad hocs have been used to examine police reforms, good governance and water policy, among other topics.
Making these meetings open has long been a point of contention in the transparency policy, and the current proposal would only require the chair of an ad hoc committee to make an oral report to the full council after it meets, and for the city clerk to notice the public when an ad hoc committee is dissolved.
Public advocacy groups Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, which have both worked extensively on the reforms, object to keeping ad hoc committee meetings closed. The groups met with Steinberg last week to discuss the issue.
Paula Lee, president of the League of Women Voters, said the group was “delighted” with the mayor’s decision to push to open the meetings to the public.
“It’s a really important piece,” said Nicolas Heidorn, legislation and policy council for Common Cause. “Doing the public business on anything that is a formal committee ... should be done out in the public.”
Some council members are concerned that making ad hoc meetings public will curtail their ability to have deep and sometimes contentious policy discussions.
“If you really want the policy makers to brainstorm and come up with opposing ideas and make ideas that are proposed better, then you need to be able to do that in a safe environment,” Councilman Larry Carr said. “If everything is done in public, it really stifles the conversation.”
Carr said that any recommendations from the ad hoc committees are brought to the full council for action, making the final results public.
Councilman Allen Warren also voiced concern over making ad hoc meetings open.
“You’ve got to have open dialogue and debate,” Warren said. “The (private) discussion sometimes allows us to be more candid.”
Steinberg said he believed the public should be allowed at ad hoc meetings because “it’s where a lot of the key decisions get made.” But he added that he didn’t expect, or want, all city business to be public.
“It doesn’t mean you can’t have key conversations with a colleague in private,” he said.
Steinberg’s expected request for council members to put proposed amendments in writing prior to council meetings will likely meet with more consensus. The issue of council members suggesting changes to ordinances from the dais has been a point of controversy among members themselves, and between members and the public.
At times, such as with recent legislation on marijuana, extensive changes have been made minutes before a vote.
“Some people will make very extensive amendments to an ordinance, and it’s very difficult to sit down and do an analysis of it before you have to vote on it,” Carr said. “I love the idea of having it written down and doing the proper work before things come to council.”
While Steinberg’s expected amendment would likely still allow his fellow legislators to make changes during meetings, it would establish a system for publishing amendments before meetings, in effect making it the standard.
Picking up on an issue that plagued Hillary Clinton during the recent presidential race and caused legal problems for former Mayor Kevin Johnson, Steinberg will also likely suggest that all city business be required to be done on city servers, eliminating the use of private emails.
Clinton faced an FBI investigation and public criticism during her run for president for her use of a private email server for federal business when she was secretary of state. Johnson and some of his staff used Gmail accounts for work involving the National Conference of Black Mayors and other tasks, leading to controversy and a Public Records Act court case in which the mayor attempted to block access to those private-server emails.
“If those of us in public life have learned anything in 2016 from the presidential elections, it’s do public business on public servers,” Steinberg said.
But Councilman Jeff Harris cautioned that it might be tougher to implement that ban than expected, and city business would need to be clearly defined since most council members have private cellphones on which they receive texts, emails and calls. Harris said that all emails should be publicly available, but that, “if you want to do Public Records Act requests on texts, man oh man, are you going to bog the system down.”
Harris said he would like the public to also consider the cost of Public Records Act requests.
“We are spending millions on this, and people need to understand that those millions mean less police on the street, less parks repair,” Harris said. “People should be aware that it is costing them taxpayer money. It is coming right out of the city budget.”
Behest payments, another problem for Johnson, are also on Steinberg’s list of proposed amendments.
Behests are donations, usually made by corporations, to charities favored by politicians. State law requires behests of more than $5,000 be reported within 30 days. At the urging of Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, Steinberg will likely suggest that such payments be disclosed sooner – and before a council member can vote on any issue related to the donation or the company that made it.
Lee said that during a series of public forums held in 2015 to discuss transparency and ethics in city government, behests were “one of the biggest” concerns she heard.
The sunshine ordinance is part of a package of reforms that community groups and the city have been working on since 2014. Other parts include the passage in November of a ballot measure that creates an independent commission to draw the boundaries for City Council districts, as well as a proposed ethics package, which will also be discussed at Thursday’s meeting.
Steinberg also has a suggestion to make on that ethics package.
He will likely propose that the city contract out enforcement and investigation of campaign contributions and other money-related ethics violations to the state Fair Political Practices Committee. The FPPC usually handles only investigations into state-level legislators and campaigns, and a state bill allowing it to manage Sacramento’s oversight would be necessary.
Steinberg said if the council agrees to the idea, he will work with Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, to carry that bill in the coming year.