The Sacramento Bee

Sacramento wants state watchdog to enforce city ethics rules

February 9, 2017

By Anita Chabria

State legislators announced legislation Thursday that would allow the state’s watchdog agency to enforce Sacramento’s campaign finance rules.

Under Senate Bill 267, Sacramento would join Stockton and San Bernardino County as the only municipalities in California that can contract with the Fair Political Practices Commission to handle local ethics investigations and oversight.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, a former state legislator, suggested outsourcing the watchdog work in January as one of several City Council measures meant to increase accountability and transparency in local government.

The FPPC usually handles only investigations related to violations of state law; under SB 267, the agency could enforce city campaign rules. The authorizing legislation requires a two-thirds legislative vote as a change to the 1974 voter-approved Political Reform Act.

Steinberg said Thursday that the FPPC had more expertise than could likely be assembled at the local level, and presented a more cost-efficient and robust method of enforcement.

“We shouldn’t reinvent the wheel,” Steinberg said. “We will get high quality at significantly less expense.”

The cost of the contract is expected to be about $55,000 annually if the bill is enacted, according to Steinberg’s staff. The mayor said the contract would be “cost neutral” to the state, with the city covering all FPPC expenses, similar to the deal San Bernardino County has in place.

Sen. Richard Pan and Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, both Sacramento Democrats, introduced SB 267 on Wednesday. Pan said he was “happy to help the city pursue greater transparency,” and believed using the FPCC for enforcement “makes a lot of sense.”

McCarty, who was previously on the Sacramento City Council, said he had pushed unsuccessfully for an ethics commission during his time on the council. He said using the FPPC would ensure an enforcement system with “some teeth” behind it.

Gary Winuk, former FPPC enforcement chief and an advocate for local ethics reform, agreed that using the state agency would give the city a “bigger bang for your buck” when it comes to investigations because of the FPPC’s depth of expertise and large staff. Winuk said that many cities struggle to hire auditors and investigators because campaign finance is a specialized niche without enough experts.

“It’s a challenge to find experienced people,” Winuk said. He helped craft the FPPC contract with San Bernardino County and said it represents a successful model. He added that using the FPPC for local enforcement “adds a degree of fairness and neutrality” because investigators are “not always enmeshed with local politics.”

Sacramento has been working on ethics and sunshine reform since 2014 and approved a comprehensive set of measures in January. Other parts of the package include the passage in November of a ballot measure that creates an independent commission to draw the boundaries for City Council districts.