Your damn emails: Ethics reform in the post-KJ era

What a difference a mayor makes? Darrell Steinberg made ethics reform a week 1 priority, after it had been short-shrifted and slow-walked by the City Council for two years.

The new ethics and transparency proposals include things like requiring city employees to use city email addresses to do city business (hurray!), putting an end to the practice of ad hoc council committees that do business behind closed doors (outstanding!), and creation of an ethic commission to investigate and take enforcement action against ethics violations — we’ll see what this actually looks like when city staff and the Law and Legislation Committee flesh out the particulars, sometime before the full council is supposed to take the measures up on February 28.

This week I talked to two people who have been pushing (and pushing and pushing) for these reforms for the last two years, Paula Lee, with the League of Women Voters of Sacramento County, and Nicolas Heidorn, with California Common Cause.

There’s a lot of backstory here. Ethics reform is in many ways a response to the previous mayor, Kevin Johnson, and several attempts he made to dramatically increase the power of the mayor’s office. There were sexual harassment accusations against Johnson, and against another council member. Johnson used the office of mayor to solicit millions of dollars for his private nonprofit organizations and his charter school. He and his staff used a parallel email network, off of city servers, in order to avoid public records requests. He sued me and the paper I worked with, the Sacramento News and Review, and the City of Sacramento, to keep some of those emails from seeing the light of day.

So, many of the ethics and transparency reforms are a response to the Johnson years.

It seems pretty clear that something changed with Steinberg coming onto the scene. His entrance seems to have made the difference on some key policy changes on emails for example, and on ending the secret ad hoc committees.


I call the podcast “Open Ears,” because I wanted to do something different than my old column. This project is more about listening and less about my opinion, I want to hear from people who know what they’re talking about.

Still, I do have some opinions, having spent a lot of time writing and thinking about this issue. I still think more needs to be done on the use of what are called behests — unlimited amounts of money that people that interests with business before the council funnel to non-profit or charitable organizations that are associated with or controlled by, those council members. I think that practice, the way it’s been done in Sacramento over the last few years, is corrupt. And just because Darrell Steinberg is a nice a guy, or because his nonprofits are less sketchy than Kevin Johnson’s, that doesn’t mean behests are not hugely problematic. (For an idea of what I mean by corrupt, see Zephyr Teachout’s great little book, Corruption in America.)

And I think it’s a shame that the city council won’t restore funding for public financing of election campaigns for grass-roots candidates who want to run for office without tremendous special interest funded warchests. Various council members have said they support the idea of public financing, and it’s really not that expensive, compared to any number of other items the council found worthy. But public financing has been defunded and ignored for several years.

I should say also that the League and Common Cause were not the only groups involved in this push for ethics reform. From the beginning, going back to the defeat of Johnson’s last strong mayor initiative — there was another group called Eye on Sacramento, trying to get the public and the city council engaged. I think there was some divide-and-conquer going on, because EOS is less conciliatory and because some council members don’t like them. I’m hoping to sit down with them soon about this package of ethics reforms, and see what they think would make it better.


Hey, if you’d like to get an email when new episodes of the podcast are posted, please sign up for the semi-weekly “Open Ears” newsletter. It makes it a lot easier to get the interviews to folks who want to hear them. (And allows me to spam people’s Facebook feeds a lot less.)

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