About Craig Powell

Craig Powell is an attorney, businessman and community activist. He serves as President of Eye on Sacramento

Nominee for this year’s Economic Ignoramus Award

I’m nominating city staffer Davna Gauthier for this year’s “Economic Ignoramus Award” for her staff report on a proposal to expand the city’s taxicab regulations.  The first line of her report summary captures not just her manifest ignorance of basic economics, but shows how easily the incumbents in a regulated industry can capture the very government that is supposed to be regulating it.

Craig Powell, President of Eye On Sacramento

From next week’s agenda for the city’s Law & Legislation Committee:

5.  Recommendation for the Expansion of Taxicab Regulations Estimated Time: 30 Minutes

Location: Citywide Issue: The City of Sacramento and the taxi industry concur that there are too many taxis in the Sacramento area, especially in downtown Sacramento. In August 2011, the City council implemented a tax vehicle permit moratorium to allow staff time to address potential solutions to the influx of taxis in the downtown and other areas of the City. Since that time, staff has been researching limiting the number of taxicab permits, as well as regulations that would improve the taxi industry/services in the City

Recommendation: Discuss and provide direction on staff recommendations for actions designed to improve the City’s taxicab services and to regulate the industry in a manner similar to other cities of our six and to protect public health and safety. Contact: Dafna Gauthier, Business Permit Manager, (916) 808-7800; Brad Wasson, Revenue Manager, (916) 808-5844; Finance Department. Member Comments-Ideas, Questions and Meeting/Conference Reports

Item 05 – Recommendations for the Expansion of Taxicab Regulations (PDF – 165KB)

 

A Message to Sacramento City Council: Democracy Dies in the Darkness

Will the Sacramento City Council make a real commitment to open and transparent government this spring or will it fudge on the issue?  The City Council is facing such a choice because of new and proposed state laws that are systematically gutting the two key laws that keep local government open and transparent to their citizens: the Brown Act, California’s open-meeting law, and the Public Records Act.

Here’s what’s happened: Last year, the Legislature and Governor Brown, in a cost-cutting move, decided to cut off all reimbursements of the costs local government incurs in complying with the Brown Act.   But the state constitution requires the state to reimburse local governments for their costs of complying with state mandates like the Brown Act.  So our state leaders simply passed a law relieving local governments of the burden of complying with key provisions of the Brown Act.  Most local governments, including the City of Sacramento,  responded by pledging to “voluntarily” comply with the suspended law.

Now, the Governor wants to take the suspension further.  In his proposed state budget, he’s asking the Legislature to now invalidate large portions of the California Public Records Act, the law which enables the public and the media to compel local government to cough up records on request.  If the Legislature goes along, local governments in California will be pretty much free to operate in darkness and thumb their noses at pesky citizens and inquisitive reporters who file requests for public records that require a lick of effort on the part of local government to compile.

City of Bell redux anyone?

I imagine that most local governments will respond to the suspension of the Public Record Act’s mandates as they did to suspension of the Brown Act: they will issue pious pledges to “voluntarily” comply with the Records Act notwithstanding its suspension.

That’s simply not good enough.  Not nearly good enough.

It is too easy for local government officials to abandon their public pledges of compliance when things get uncomfortable for them.  After suspension of the Brown Act mandates, San Diego County was challenged for replacing its top administrator without prior public notice.  A county attorney responded to the challenge by pointing out that there was no legal basis for challenging the county’s action because the Brown Act’s provisions were “no longer operative.” Any local government attorney worth his salt would take the same posture.  If a local government, including one that has pledged compliance, balks at coughing up a public record that is requested, the requestor will no longer have recourse to the courts to compel compliance: they’ll simply have no legal case to plead.  The doors of the courthouse will be slammed in their face.

There is a very easy way for local governments to fix this problem – if local elected officials are honestly committed to democratic governance.  They can simply adopt by local ordinance the suspended portions of the Brown Act and the Public Records Act and provide their citizens the legal standing to enforce the rules by court action.

March 10th marks the beginning of “Sunshine Week,” a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.  Participants include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know.  Sunshine Week is the ideal time for local government leaders to step up and introduce legislation to preserve California’s open government laws in their own jurisdictions.  Members of the Sacramento City Council: Are you listening?

 

Craig Powell is an attorney, businessman and community activist.  He serves as President of Eye on Sacramento.

City of Sacramento Receives “F” Grade on National Survey of Transparency of Major U.S. Cities

MEDIA RELEASE

For Immediate Release
Contact: Craig Powell, President, Eye on Sacramento (EOS)
phone: (916) 718-3030; e-mail: craig@eyeonsacramento.org
website: www.eyeonsacramento.org
Date: January 30, 2013; 10:50 a.m. 

City of Sacramento Receives “F” Grade

National Survey of Transparency of Major U.S. Cities

A report published this week by U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) graded 30 major U.S. cities on how well “checkbook-level” information is presented on-line to citizens. The study – the first of its kind assessing local government transparency – found that Sacramento finished 29th out of 30 cities surveyed, earning an “F” grade in financial transparency.

In an interview with Governing magazine, PIRG senior analyst, Phineas Baxandall, said, “Transparency is really important for good fiscal management and checking against corruption so citizens can feel confident in how their governments spend tax dollars.”

PIRG evaluated each city’s transparency efforts by measuring a series of 12 criteria. Part of the assessment looked at the breadth of information provided, such as vendor payments, detailed tax expenditures and budgets. The report also scored the extent to which the information was readily available, emphasizing centralized websites, searching capability and downloadable data.

On June 12, 2012, Eye on Sacramento asked the Sacramento City Council to adopt ten Transparency Reforms which would greatly increase city residents’ access to their city government and help restore trust in the integrity of city government leaders, including one on “checkbook-level” transparency:

EOS Reform #2: Post the city’s check book and other payments on-line in Excel format so that the public can see for themselves how every city dollar (general fund and enterprise funds) is being spent. City activists and enterprising local media will pour over these records and seek out explanations for payments that strike them as potentially inappropriate. When city check writers know that every check they write and payment they authorize will be scrutinized by the public, they will be on their best behavior.

To date, not one of the EOS transparency proposals have been adopted by the city council. EOS President Craig Powell said today, “Our hope is that the “F” grade given to Sacramento by PIRG this week will awaken the city council from its slumber and motivate it to take the immediate actions necessary to open up its books to the city taxpayers who pay its bills. Sacramentans deserve much, much better from its city leaders.”

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City of Sacramento non-existent whistle-blower hotline largely window dressing.

Inside City Hall  Published on Wednesday, 30 Oct | Print | Email

Whistle-blower Hotline   What’s that number again?

By Craig Powell

On Oct. 11, just as absentee voters were beginning to cast their ballots on Measure U, the proposal to increase the city sales tax, city officials issued a breathless press release announcing the “launch” of a whistle-blower hotline that city employees could use to report waste, fraud and abuse in city government. The Sacramento Bee dutifully ran a story the next day reporting that the city has “launched a whistle-blower program” that “will include a 24-hour hotline for city employees.” Even Channel 13 news covered the “launch.”

But there was a rather glaring omission in the city’s press release and the resulting media coverage: No one actually reported the hotline’s phone number. Why? Because there is no whistle-blower hotline and, according to city auditor Jorge Oseguera in statements to Eye on Sacramento’s Erik Smitt, there likely won’t be one until early next year.

Why are city officials touting the launch of a whistle-blower hotline before it actually exists? To divert the public’s attention from criticism the city council has been drawing for its multiple failures to fund such a hotline since it was first proposed by Oseguera back in February. That’s when Oseguera reported to the city council that a robust hotline program could save the city as much as 5 percent of the city budget—potentially $30 million per year in savings—based on his survey of the savings realized by other cities that have robust hotline programs.

Oseguera told the council that he needed $220,000 in investigative resources to do essential follow-up on calls to the hotline without hamstringing his current staff of busy auditors. Did the council fund the $220,000 for the hotline program when it came before the council in March? Nope. Councilmembers kicked the can down the road, saying that they would consider funding the hotline as part of the council’s budget deliberations in May and June. But the city manager failed to include funding for the hotline in his proposed city budget in May, and the city council failed to fund it in the city budget they approved in June.

On Aug. 15, Oseguera reported to Smitt, Eye on Sacramento’s assistant policy director, that no funding had been authorized for a hotline, even though The Bee reported that city manager John Shirey claimed he was moving forward with the hotline back in June. If he was, he sure didn’t share any of his funding plans with Oseguera any time before Aug. 15.

After growing criticism at public forums and in the pages of this publication of the council’s repeated failures to fund the hotline proposal, Shirey decided to investigate city waste and fraud on a shoestring, asking Oseguera to line up a third-party vendor to operate what is essentially a voicemail line for the hotline at an annual cost of $15,000, but providing zero additional resources to Oseguera to investigate calls to the hotline.

Shirey’s approach to the whistle-blower hotline is akin to a police department announcing the establishment of a 911 number for police emergencies, then not hiring any actual police officers to respond to frantic calls from the public for help.

In the past year, the city council spent close to $1 million on arena consultants on an arena deal that went nowhere, more than $200,000 to hold an election on a charter review commission that no one asked for and about $750,000 on five police union leaders who perform no actual police work while collecting sizable city paychecks. But the council balked at the idea of spending $220,000 to eliminate as much as $30 million in wasteful, fraudulent and abusive city spending, ignoring its own auditor’s recommendation.

Just how bad of a business decision did the city council make in refusing to fund a serious whistle-blower hotline? Let’s assume that the auditor’s projected $30 million in potential annual savings is overstated by a factor of three and that actual savings from a robust hotline would amount to only 1.5 percent of current city spending, or $10 million annually. Savings of that amount would produce a stratospheric 4,545 percent annual return on a city expenditure of just $220,000, making it perhaps the best investment in city history.

If the council had funded a robust hotline in February, when Oseguera first proposed it, and the city had the hotline and associated investigative resources in place and operational by April 1, the city would have already saved $7 million through Nov. 1 of this year (based, mind you, on a more conservative $10 million annual savings projection), roughly equal in amount to next year’s projected deficit in the city’s general fund.

City officials’ announcement of the still-nonexistent hotline was largely window dressing, designed to provide political cover for a council bent on imposing $28 million in higher sales taxes on Sacramento residents and businesses while recklessly blowing off the best idea yet for eliminating up to $30 million annually in wasteful, fraudulent and abusive city spending. City officials’ failure to take timely and responsible action on the hotline proposal is a pretty stark and compelling example of their continuing lack of seriousness in reducing waste, fraud and abuse in city spending.

Voters may want to consider city officials’ clear lack of concern with how our city taxes are spent as they decide whether they want to increase the city’s sales tax rate from 7.75 percent to 8.25 percent, making it the highest sales tax rate in the region.

Eye On Sacramento files complaint with Grand Jury, Secretary of State and Attorney General

On July 24, 2012, the Sacramento city council passed resolutions which placed on the November 6, 2012 general election ballot a local measure to increase the city’s sales tax rate from 7.75% to 8.25% (see ES). The measure was designated Measure U. A week later (on July 31, 2012), the city council directed three of its members, Steve Cohn, Darrel Fong and Kevin McCarty, to author and submit a ballot argument supporting Measure U. At the same time, the city council directed Mayor Kevin Johnson to author and submit a ballot argument opposing Measure U (see ES).

By designating council members to write both the pro and con arguments on Measure U, the city council monopolized the ballot arguments on Measure U, shutting private citizens and organizations out of the process of submitting ballot arguments.  read more …

Summary of the City of Sacramento’s Ten Serious Measure U Ballot Irregularities

As of September 5, 2012, Eye on Sacramento had identified ten serious ballot irregularities with respect to Measure U for which City of Sacramento officials, elected and appointed, were culpable, either by instigating the irregularity or by failing to perform legally assigned duties to prevent their occurrence or to halt their continuation. The ten serious ballot irregularities are summarized below:

1. The City Council Abused Its Power By Taking Control of Both the Pro and Con Arguments on Measure U.

2. Mayor Johnson Failed to File a Con Ballot Argument As Assigned by the Council, Sandbagging Others Who Were Drafting Con Ballot Arguments.

3. The City Clerk Abused Her Discretion By Refusing To Briefly and Equitably Extend Her Deadline for Submission of Ballot Arguments Opposing Measure U.

4. Three City Councilman Violated the Law by Substituting Shills to “Author” the Argument Opposing Measure U.

5. The City Clerk and the City Attorney Failed to Enforce the Council Resolution and the City Clerk’s Own “Guidelines for Preparation of Ballot Arguments” by Failing to Disqualify the Pro Argument for Clear Non-Compliance With Applicable Rules.

6. Three City Councilman Used Legally Ineligible Ballot Co-Authors as Shills for Their Pro Argument: the Police Chief and Fire Chief.

7. The City Clerk and the City Attorney Wrongfully Refused to Disqualify the Police and Fire Chiefs as Co-Authors of the Pro Argument, Despite Citizen’s Complaint.

8. The City Attorney Authored a False and Misleading Ballot Title and Ballot Summary for Measure U.

9. The Pro Argument Submitted by Three Council Members (Via Five Shills) Contains Numerous False and Misleading Statements in Violation of State Law.

10. The False and Misleading Pro Argument Was Approved Without Objection by the City Clerk and the City Attorney.

D1341  pdf document

Why I Sued the City … Fair elections matter in Sacramento

The folks who volunteer with the local government watchdog group I head up, Eye on Sacramento, spend most of their time examining and then trying to illuminate the behavior of city government that should be of concern to the public. They also spend time studying troubling city problems and suggesting sensible solutions to  them. For example, this past spring we began a transparency project that drafted 10 reforms that would make city government more open to citizens if adopted by the city council.  This month, we are forming a city pools task force of community members, pool industry experts and others who will try to hammer out solutions to keep city pools open permanently.

But our core job is to act as a watchdog of city government and barking loudly when things go amiss.  Barking is usually enough, but on rare occasions, a good watchdog really has to do more than bark. It has to bite. Recently, Eye on Sacramento bit back, suing the city to prevent an injustice that threatens to keep city voters from seeing a ballot argument opposing Measure U, the city council’s proposal to increase city taxes by one half of 1 percent.  read more …

Petition for Writ of Mandate – City of Sacramento Measure U – Tax Increase

VERIFIED PETITION FOR WRIT OF MANDATE

Exhibit A – Argument Against Measure U

DECLARATION OF CRAIG K. POWELL IN SUPPORT OF VERIFIED PETITION FOR WRIT OF MANDATE

Exhibit Powell-1 Mayor to write argument against Sacramento sales tax hike

Exhibit Powell-2 Selection of Argument Authors …

Exhibit Powell-3 Mayor Johnson’s Ballot Argument Against Measure U

Exhibit Powell-4 Mayor Johnson fails to write argument against tax measure

DECLARATION OF DENNIS NEUFELD IN SUPPORT OF VERIFIED PETITION FOR WRIT OF MANDATE

Exhibit Neufeld-1 E-mail from Dennis Neufeld

Exhibit Neufeld-2 E-mail exchanges between Dennis Neufeld and Assistant City Clerk Stephanie Mizuno

Summary of Eye on Sacramento’s Transparency and Budgetary Reforms

June 12, 2012

Transparency Reform Proposals

EOS Reform #1Post the city’s organizational chart on-line.  The chart should list every city job position and the name and contact information of every city employee other than lower level employees whose jobs involve no interaction with the public.  Without such information, the public frequently has no clue whom to contact in the city hierarchy when they have a problem.

EOS Reform #2:  Post the city’s check book and other payments on-line in Excel format so that the public can see for themselves how every city dollar (general fund and enterprise funds) is being spent.  City activists and enterprising local media will pour over these records and seek out explanations for payments that strike them as potentially inappropriate.  When city check writers know that every check they write and payment they authorize will be scrutinized by the public, they will be on their best behavior.

EOS Reform #3:  Post all credit card charges and itemized travel expenditures of city council members and city staff on-line, which will ensure that public eye balls are on this most commonly misused and abused form of spending by city officials.

EOS Reform #4: Post the expenditures that city council members make out of their individual $55,000 annual discretionary accounts on the council member’s city web page.  These funds are designed to give council members some flexibility in funding local needs without going through the formal city budget process.  There is a public perception that such accounts are being misused by some council members as slush funds to advance members’ political interests.  By posting such expenditures on a council member’s web page for all to see, the funds will be less likely to be spent in self-aggrandizing ways (i.e. golf tournaments, electronic toys).

EOS Reform #5: Post all campaign contributions to a council member on that council member’s city web page so that the public can see at a glance who has invested money in each of our elected officials.  Currently such information is only available through a portal on the city clerk’s web site which is difficult to find and cumbersome to navigate.

EOS Reform #6: Create a Twitter feed for real time public comments on the action at live city council meetings and place the feed on the city council’s web page along side streaming video of council meetings, making such comments part of the public record of council meetings.  A live Twitter feed for council meetings would allow members of the public to share comments, interact with one another and raise public engagement in the policy-making process to a new level.

EOS Reform #7:  Seek city council approval for placement on the November 2012 ballot of an initiative creating an independent city redistricting commission.   This is a proposal being jointly developed by Eye on Sacramento and Empower Sacramento, a coalition of ethnic groups and leaders organized in the aftermath of the council’s redistricting decision.  Removing council members’ power to draw their own council district lines and shifting that power to an independent redistricting commission will protect the public interest from being subordinated to the narrow and often self-serving political interests of incumbent politicians.

EOS Reform #8:  Adopt an ordinance that prohibits the approval of any major contract and any labor contract until at least 14 days after its terms have been fully disclosed to the public via media release and prominently posted on the city’s web site, coupled with city staff’s good faith projections of both the short-term and long-term total costs to the city of such contract, as well as specific disclosures of the assumptions that underlie staff’s cost projections.  These disclosures will give the media and the public the time and opportunity to scrutinize and comment on the fairness of labor contracts to the city and its taxpayers.  With labor costs now constituting close to 80% of the city’s general fund budget, public scrutiny of proposed pacts is vital to democratic governance in the city.

EOS Reform #9: Require city employees who testify at city council hearings to be sworn.  Regular and close council observers have witnessed occasions, albeit rare, in which city staff making statements or presentations to council have been less than fully candid in their remarks, sometimes spinning or shading the facts or professing ignorance of embarrassing or uncomfortable matters, typically to avoid upsetting one or more council members.  To assure that the council and the public have the benefit of candid, independent and impartial information and advice from staff, city staff statements to council should be sworn under penalty of perjury to be the whole and complete truth.

Budgetary Reform Proposal

EOS Reform #10:  Adopt an ordinance that prohibits the city from entering into multi-year labor agreements.  In recent years, the city council has been unable to effectively manage its labor costs due to the existence of multi-year labor agreements.  A city bound by multi-year labor agreements can only close deficits by threatening unions with lay-offs to secure needed labor cost concessions.  The practice has led to the decimation of city services in department after department.  Barring multi-year labor pacts will preserve the council’s vital fiscal flexibility to reduce labor costs through negotiation and, if need be, mediation and arbitration.  The city should end the practice of savaging city service levels as a response to union intransigence.  A less preferable, but acceptable alternative, would be to limit the term of labor pacts to not more than two years.

D1276

 

INITIATIVES/PROPOSALS OF EYE ON SACRAMENTO

May 2012

Major Transparency Reforms

After examining transparency policies in other California communities and assessing Sacramento’s needs, Eye on Sacramento has compiled a list of ten proposals to make city government significantly more transparent to its citizens. Two of the ten proposals, however, stand out in terms of their importance to the city and the need for prompt City Council adoption:

1. Sunshine Rule on Major City Contracts. We propose that the City Council amend its Council Rules to require the full disclosure of all proposed major contracts at least 14 days before the Council takes action on such contracts. Major contracts would include all contracts with a value of over $5 million, including all labor pacts.

In addition, the Sunshine Rule would require that city staff publicly, concurrently release a complete analysis of the financial impact of every proposed major contract on city finances, as well as a disclosure of all material staff assumptions underlying its projections.

2. Ballot Initiative Creating an Independent Redistricting Proposal. We propose that the City Council refer to the November 2012 ballot an initiative to create an independent redistricting commission to draw future council district lines. Working in collaboration with other community groups, Eye on Sacramento is preparing a proposed charter amendment initiative that would create a redistricting commission whose members would be chosen by judges on the Sacramento Superior Court, a model based on the successful experience of the City of San Diego over the past 12 years. Extensive public hearings and outreach by the redistricting commission would also be mandated.

Major Budgetary Reforms

Given the complexity of the city budget and resource limitations, Eye on Sacramento has elected to focus its policy efforts on three initiatives for the balance of 2012:

3. Council Rule Prohibiting Multi-Year Labor Agreements (or “Fiscal Out”). In recent years, the City Council has been unable to manage its labor costs due to the existence of multi-year labor agreements. When faced with a budget deficit, the city can only threaten bargaining unions with lay-offs to obtain needed labor cost concessions. This practice has led to the decimation of city services in department after department. By limiting labor pacts to no more than one year, the City Council will preserve the necessary fiscal flexibility to reduce labor costs through negotiation and, if need be, mediation and would no long be compelled to savage city service levels in reaction to union intransigence. Alternatively, all labor pacts should include a “Fiscal Out” granting the city the right to terminate all labor pacts if the Council declares, in its sole and absolute discretion, a fiscal emergency.

4. Launch Task Force to Save City Pools. In next year’s budget, virtually all city pools will face closure absent major budgetary reforms. Eye on Sacramento is launching a six-month project to examine the operations and costs of city pools. It will be appointing a task force comprised of community leaders, pool industry representatives and experts, private swim club executives and parks and recreation department managers to comprehensively study ways to reduce the costs of operating city pools, to explore alternative ways of managing and maintaining city pools and to identify additional resources to support city pool operations.

5. Community Study to Restore City Parks. City parks have borne the brunt of city budget cutbacks and staff layoffs. Many city parks are dependent on volunteers for basic maintenance. The current “triage” approach to city parks is not sustainable and long-term solutions must be identified. Eye on Sacramento, in conjunction with park volunteer groups, community leaders and city staff, will launch a “community study” of alternative solutions, assessing tax options, outsourcing options and the launch of park conservancies.

General Fund Budget Analysis; “Open” Labor Pacts

In addition to pursuing the above policy initiatives, Eye on Sacramento, in discharging its “watchdog” mission, will be offering critiques of various aspects of the city manager’s proposed 2012/2013 general fund budget during budget hearings The central theme of our critiques will be to identify and advocate for long-term, multi-year budget reforms that will help arrest the city’s structural deficit and provide opportunities for the restoration of badly frayed core city services.

The city has two labor pacts expiring this year, including its pact with the city’s largest union, Local 39. The city should use these expiring pacts as opportunities to permanently realign its labor costs to conform to budgetary realities. We applaud the Library Authority for its recent action in submitting a “last, best” contract offer to Local 39 to realign labor costs in the face of union opposition. Cost-saving opportunities in labor pact re-negotiations include:

(a) controlling future pension costs by creating a lower tier of pension benefits for new hires;

(b) eliminating pension spiking by shifting “pensionable pay” from the final year of employment to the final three years of employment; and

(c) requiring employees to contribute to reserves to cover the currently unfunded cost of retiree health care costs (now over $380 million).

EOS 2012 Policy Agenda pdf