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Sacramento City Council to consider ethics package

By Ryan Lillis

rlillis@sacbee.com

September 10, 2015 04:43 PM

UPDATED September 10, 2015 10:17 PM

The Sacramento City Council will vote Tuesday on a “good government” package that includes the creation of an ethics commission, an ethics code and a commission tasked with drawing the boundaries for City Council districts.

The recommendations are the work of a City Council ad hoc committee appointed by Mayor Kevin Johnson that met behind closed doors for months. The committee worked with attorneys specializing in government ethics, the League of Women Voters and government watchdog Common Cause. Those groups expressed support for the proposal Thursday.

A separate package of ethics reforms was proposed last week by local watchdog group Eye on Sacramento. That group has threatened to place its plan on the November 2016 ballot if the City Council does not approve what it considers adequate reforms.

The mayor called the package presented by his group “a breakthrough that provides an unprecedented level of accountability and transparency to Sacramento city government.” Johnson first proposed many of the changes as part of his strong-mayor ballot measure that was defeated by voters last year.

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“This is a proposal for landmark ethics reform in Sacramento and should be celebrated,” said Paula Lee, president of the League of Women Voters of Sacramento County.

A highlight of the proposal is an ethics commission. That commission would include five members that include administrative law judges, law school ethics professors, professional arbitrators and judges with expertise in election law. The commissioners would serve four-year terms and be appointed by the mayor, with confirmation from the City Council.

The commission would review findings from an independent investigator and focus on complaints regarding “campaign finance, lobbying, conflicts of interest and other city specific ordinances or policies related to ethics,” according to a city staff report. Based on the investigator’s findings, the commission would have the authority to hand out administrative penalties and fines.

Eye on Sacramento recommended that retired judges appoint the commissioners, arguing that members of the commission could not be independent of political pressure if appointed by the City Council.

Craig Powell, president of Eye on Sacramento, declined comment on the plan, saying his group was “excluded from discussions with city staff over this proposal.”

“We will be reviewing it very closely over the next few days and will be issuing a comprehensive response,” Powell said.

The package also includes an office of compliance that would train city employees on state and city political ethics codes. The cost of that office, combined with the ethics commission’s investigator, is estimated at $450,000.

The redistricting commission would require an amendment to the city charter and voter approval before it could be adopted. The plan released Thursday proposed that the 13-member commission appear on the November 2018 ballot, in time for the next round of redistricting in 2021. The city clerk would create an initial pool of 40 qualified applicants from around the city, which would then be narrowed down by a screening panel.

A sunshine ordinance would centralize city records and the city’s independent budget analyst would be required to hold public forums on the budget as the mayor and City Council develop the annual spending plan.

An ethics code would require elected officials to complete sexual harassment training every two years, place restrictions on nepotism in city employee hiring practices and require newly elected officials to take ethics training within 60 days of taking office, replacing the current six-month requirement.

“These recommendations are the culmination of over eight months of work, identifying best practices, highlighting where the city excels and what steps are necessary to make the city of Sacramento the most ethical and transparent local government in the nation,” said Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, who took the lead in developing the plan in recent weeks.

Calls for ethics reform at City Hall have intensified in recent months after Johnson and Councilman Allen Warren were accused of sexual harassment by city employees. The city attorney and an independent investigation later found the claim against Johnson to be unsubstantiated. The investigation into the claim against Warren is still ongoing.

Johnson’s use of city staffers and private email accounts to revive and later take control of the National Conference of Black Mayors also has been scrutinized. And the claim against Warren included an allegation that he asked city staffers to work on business for his private development firm, New Faze.

Warren also served on the good government ad hoc committee with Ashby and Councilman Jay Schenirer.