This is my last column. I’m moving to a new job in the features department, where I will be an editor and writer.
The paper, in my opinion, will be the poorer as a result.
Not because I can’t be replaced — I’m but one in a line of former ombudsmen here — but because it is a step back in the paper’s relationship with its readers, a dissolution of the pact that began in 1975 when this position was created by the late C.K. McClatchy, who was then the editor of The Bee.
McClatchy, whom I never met, created the post as a way to increase the paper’s accountability to its readers by having the ombudsman investigate complaints about the newspaper’s accuracy, balance and fairness in its news stories. The Bee was one of the first American newspapers to create such a position, and it was considered a progressive decision at the time.
The job has evolved since then. Transparency, explanations of how news decision are made, discussions about trends or troubles buffeting the news media are important components of the job.
For all its potential, only a relative handful of daily newspapers in the United States had the vision, gumption and resources to carve out a position that has been called both the most thankless and the loneliest job in journalism. That’s if you do the job well.
Four years ago, there were about 40 public editors working for the approximately 1,500 daily papers across the country.
Then the great advertising slump hit two years ago and set up house like an annoying relative.
Media jobs by the thousands have disappeared, buyouts and layoffs are common, bureaus have closed, papers are smaller, etc.
As the news has gotten progressively worse, papers have scrambled to jettison expenses like a sputtering plane tossing out luggage to stay in the air and avoid a crash.
And now, like heavy suitcases, public editor positions across the country are going out the door to lighten the load even more.
— From Armando Acuna’s last column as Public Editor for the Sacramento Bee, August 31, 2008. Whatever little bit of money the Bee saved eliminating his job, it wasn’t worth it.
The WalMart wars aren’t over yet. Labor groups are planning to go to the ballot to stop the Sacramento City Council’s rollback of the big box ordinance.
“We’re going ahead with it, we’ve got to get started PDQ,” said Bill Camp, executive secretary of the Sacramento Central Labor Council.
If they gather enough signatures in 30 days—going with Camp’s belief that it will take 22,000, but that needs to be double-checked—then voters will have the opportunity to reject (or uphold) the Council’s decision last Tuesday to gut requirements for a detailed economic impact report and wage and benefit analysis whenever a superstore like WalMart is proposed in the City.
The signature drive is sure to run into the same criticism that people make of the STOP arena vote petitioners—that they are trying to do an “end-run” around the City Council. Here’s how council member Steve Hansen was quoted in the Bee this morning, regarding STOP’s initiative:
"Every time there is something you don’t like, you (get the public to) vote on it?…You don’t need me then."
I put the same proposition to Camp: The Council made it’s decision, that’s Democracy, if you don’t like it, that’s what elections are for. Right?
“People who say that haven’t read our State Constitution,” Camp replied. “In fact it is a democracy. In a democracy citizens have a right to stop an abuse of power.”
Camp referred back to Eric Sunderland’s FPPC/Attorney General complaint against the Mayor for behesting $800,000 from WalMart and the Walton foundation—much of which went into non-profit groups the Mayor created. Sunderland charges that some of that money was used to pay for the Mayor’s travel and other expenses.
“He can’t vote on something when he gets a direct gift like that,” Camp said. “I don’t care what the City Attorney says.”
align a alignIt will be interesting to see if labor is more successful in their referendum efforts than STOP has been. They’ll need to have signature gatherers on the street immediately, and gathering, as Camp says, “about a thousand signatures a day,” if they are going to be successful. They presumably have much more money and a large network of local union members to draw on. I suppose it’s not called organized labor for nothing.
So, here’s something interesting on the WalMart wars, that might come tomorrow. On Friday I talked to Sacramento City Attorney Jim Sanchez, who confirmed that he and his staff are looking at the issue of a possible conflict of interest involving Mayor Kevin Johnson, WalMart, and the big box ordinance coming up on Tuesday.
WalMart and associated foundations have given about $800,000 to various non-profits on behalf the Mayor, most of it to Johnson’s own Stand Up education organization. And WalMart this year gave $8 million to StudentsFirst, the anti-teacher’s union lobbying group founded by Johnson’s wife Michelle Rhee.
That’s where Sanchez says there might be a conflict, or at least the appearance of a conflict. Because that’s basically family income—food on KJ’s table, or gas in his SUV, or whatever it is he spends his money on.
Will Sanchez recommend that KJ recuse himself? That might politically dicey, given the current makeup of the Council. Would KJ recuse himself, if Sanchez did recommend it? Probably not, but it wouldn’t look good. And if the big box ordinance is repealed 5-4, which is what seems likely, what does that say about the state of the City’s ethics rules?
Hopefully we’ll hear Sanchez’ recommendation sometime by Monday afternoon.
Sacramento City Council members keep inventing new, creative ways to collect money and funnel it into their own political brands. And we need new rules to keep up with their inventions.
Last week some local pro-labor Democrats asked the California Attorney General and Fair Political Practices Commission to investigate Kevin Johnson’s 501(c)(3) organizations, and the collection from hundreds of thousands of dollars from WalMart, leading up to the vote on Sacramento’s contentious big box policy next week.
But when the WalMart battle is over, the problem will remain; these non-profit organizations lack transparency, they lack clear rules, and they mix public resources with the council member’s political interests.
City Council member Jay Schenirer’s organization, WayUp Sacramento, has gotten considerably less attention than the mayor’s efforts. But it blurs plenty of lines.
WayUp helps to fund programs for at risk youth in Oak Park, and that’s a perfectly good thing to do. But last year Sacramento City Manager John Shirey said it was inappropriate for outside non-profits, no matter how worthy, to operate out of City Hall or use City resources. As a result, Kevin Johnson’s education non-profit Stand Up, and his arena booster group, Think Big, were evicted from City property.
In some ways Schenirer’s WayUp looks quite similar to Johnson’s groups. WayUp has a website, paid staff, receives big donations through the City’s “behest” system, just as the mayor’s non-profits do—including checks from businesses like WalMart and AT&T and Sutter Health, along with foundation support from the California Endowment. WayUp has taken in nearly $800,000 since Schenirer was elected in 2010.
So why does WayUp get to operate in City Hall after KJ’s non-profits were shown the door? The short answer is that WayUp isn’t really a non-profit, not yet. According to Schenirer, it’s a “brand.”
Schenirer says WayUp will one day move out and be housed at the offices of the non-profit Nehemiah Community Reinvestment Fund, one of WayUp’s many partners.
In fact last year, WayUp applied for a grant from US Department of Education, which stated that WayUp had already been merged into Nehemiah. But a year later, the merger hasn’t actually happened. So WayUp continues in its in-between state, almost a non-profit, almost a public entity.
“There’s going to be a transition period. It will depend on funding,” Schenirer told me. He said another $300,000 from the California Endowment was due soon.
And though the City Manager’s office has been clear that no private non-profits are to operate out of City Hall, Schenirer says WayUp is in the clear. “According to the City Attorney, if it’s a public good, there’s no problem housing it at City Hall.” That doesn’t sound like very good legal advice, but maybe something got lost in translation.
Like Johnson’s non-profits Way Up money from behests, donations made “at the behest of the politician.” But since WayUp is not itself a non-profit, its money is first collected by a City administered 501(c)(3) called Gifts to Share.
Gifts to Share operated for many years as a way to direct donations to various local charities on behalf of Council Members—little leagues, swimming pools, Pops in the Park, stuff like that. Now it moves much larger sums of money around, facilitating the growth of council member non-profits and “brands.”
The Gifts to Share board includes the Mayor, along with City staff and some prominent private citizens. I was told that the board meetings, agendas and minutes are not open to the public, but I haven’t pushed it yet.
WayUp’s staff includes Schenirer and his district director Joe Devlin, though neither of them are compensated by WayUp. WayUp’s program director Talia Kaufman is paid $89,000 a year by the brand. Two more staff members are paid with a blend of City money from Schenirer’s district office budget, and private money from WayUp. And their jobs are a mix as well. “Some of it is under the brand of WayUp some of it is under the [council] district,” explained Schenirer.
“It’s somewhat curious that ‘brand’ is the word they use,” says Jessica Levinson, professor of election law at Loyola law school. “’Brand’ can certainly be seen as PR for the candidate.”
Like when Schenirer toured his district during National Night Out last week, handing out WayUp tote bags and buttons. She’s not sure Schenirer is doing anything wrong, though she adds, “The thing that feels a bit funny is that it is using government resources.”
Schenirer says “brand” applies to the community work WayUp does. But of course it’s an extension of Schenirer’s brand as a politician, and an extension of his professional brand too.
Schenirer is an education consultant, that’s how he makes his money. Among WayUp’s stated goals are “an ambitious, rigorous, and comprehensive strategy of reform” for schools in Schenirer’s district. Schenirer told me that school reform is “a generic term” and that in this case it means non-controversial things like school nutrition programs.
But the project description that WayUp sent to the US Department of Education advocates policies that are related to the work done by Schenirer’s consulting business, Capitol Impact LLC, and its principals
The WayUp brand seems to be where Schenirer’s interests as a public office holder, politician, and professional education consultant all intersect. How much intersection is ok? That’s where some sort of City policy would be helpful.
“The lack of any clear definitions means there is a lack of rules,” says Philip Ung with the political watchdog group Common Cause.
“What Mr. Johnson and the other council members are doing is…innovative. Our biggest fear is that in California we’ll start to see models like the one Kevin Johnson set up,” he added.
They might want to keep an eye on Schenirer’s variation as well.
He’s has gotten into trouble in the past inventing new structures. When he was school board member he and fellow board member Rick Jennings helped invent the CASA pension scheme for administrators, which was later found illegal, and which cost the district quite a lot of money. Better to scrutinize these sorts of innovations sooner rather than later.
Levinson meanwhile says these sorts of non-profits (and “brands”) make for a fascinating but potentially problematic new tool for politicians.
“Until there’s more guidance, politicians will continue to do this. They’d be foolish not to,” she said.
The folks behind the latest strong mayor push, Sacramento Tomorrow, insist that it has nothing to do with Kevin Johnson, or the many strong mayor schemes that came before. But when you look closely, a lot of the players are the same folks. The latest example being that ST asked Jon Bagatelos, a big funder of both Johnson and previous strong mayor campaigns, to throw a little fundraiser for the cause.
Here’s part of Bagatelos’ pitch.
In the past few years we have made a lot of changes to the City Council for the betterment of the business environment here in Sacramento – the new Downtown Sports Arena being a huge, visible result of that Council transformation. Reforming the City’s Charter will be the last step in putting together a business-friendly environment in the City which will help business development here.
Yes, the final pieces are almost in place. Then business will finally get the respect it deserves in Sacramento. Fundraiser will be at The Mix, 11th and L, on September 26, if you’re into that kind of thing.