Review of Proposed City Sunshine Ordinance and Code of Ethics

November 10, 2015

Via E-Mail
Members of the Law & Legislation Committee,
Sacramento City Council
New City Hall
915 I Street
Sacramento, CA 95814

Re: Review of Proposed City Sunshine Ordinance and Code of Ethics

Dear Members of the Committee:

Eye on Sacramento (“EOS”) submits the following comments to the proposed sunshine ordinance and the proposed ethics code that were prepared by city staff and publicly released Thursday afternoon.  The proposals come before your committee today, November 10, 2015, at 3:00 p.m. at City Hall.   Our comments include four attachments:

Sunshine Ordinance-Related

Attachment #1 – Draft Sunshine Ordinance, with sections labeled as either “New” or “Existing” (i.e.  meaning sections that would merely codify existing law or practice, rather than establish new rule), or are “Vague” or “Ineffectual.”

Included is aFramework of Recommendations on Open Government, with those Framework items that have been omitted from the draft ordinance identified as “Not Adopted.”

Attachment #2 – EOS’s Table of Proposed Sunshine Ordinance Reforms (69 reforms), with those reforms not included in the draft ordinance identified as “Not Adopted” (59 of 69).  The Table lists the sunshine reform proposals that EOS and the Open Government Subgroup of the Sacramento Integrity Project crafted in response to a broad community conversation initiated and co-sponsored by EOS and involving 10 well-attended forums throughout the city.

Attachment #3 –  Milpitas’ Sunshine Ordinance –  Milpitas, a modest-sized South Bay city, is one of ten Bay Area cities that have adopted thoughtful, comprehensive and effective sunshine ordinances that are serving to significantly open up local governments to their citizenry.

Ethics Code-Related

Attachment #4 – Draft Ethics Code, with notations of those sections that are “New,” “Existing,” “Vague” or “Ineffectual.”

Included is aFramework of Recommendations on Ethics Reform, with those Framework items that have been omitted from the draft ordinance identified as “Not Adopted.”

Attachment #5 – EOS’s Summary of Proposed Ethics Code, with those items not included in the draft ordinance identified as “Not Adopted.” The summary identifies the critical elements that an ethics code must include to restore diminished public trust in the administration of Sacramento city government.

The Frameworks in Attachments #1 and #4 set forth the terms of an agreement reached by Ad Hoc representatives and representatives of the League of Women Voters, California Common Cause and private attorney Gary Winuck following a series of closed-door meetings in early September.  The terms of the Framework were approved by the City Council at its meeting on September 15, 2015.

Overall Comment

The substantive provisions of each proposed ordinance comprise just a few pages of text that are in many instances vague, largely repetitious of existing law and city practice, ineffectual, minimalist, as well as unenforceable promises of future reviews and improvements, backed up by an enforcement clause that assures zero consequences for violations.  The staff proposals are not a serious effort to enact real transparency or ethics reform in Sacramento.  They are, in general, a restatement of existing practices, designed to offer the public the window dressing of reform but not the substance of it.  Such a minimalist approach fails to address the aspirations of the public for serious open government and ethics reform at City Hall.

Codification of Existing Law or Practice

Consistent with the posture that the city has adopted towards transparency and ethics reform since the public conversation on these issues began earlier this year, we are not surprised to find that fully eight of the 26 provisions of the draft sunshine ordinance, and 13 of the 17 provisions of the draft ethics code are, in whole or in part, duplicative of existing state law, city code or existing city practice. The codification of existing practice would have some minimal value if the ordinance served to impose actual consequences for their violation.  But neither ordinance lays out any consequence for their violation and even includes declarations that violations will not constitute either a misdemeanor or an infraction.

No Consequences, No Reform

An ordinance is a law.  Adopting laws which explicitly state that there will be no legal consequences if they are violated – as is the case with these ordinances – renders such laws a dead letter and would only serve to undermine respect for the law.  The fact that the draft ordinances expressly disavow any penalty for their violation is clear evidence that the intent of these ordinances is to mislead the public into believing that meaningful transparency and ethics reforms are being enacted when, in fact, such ordinances amount to little more than glorified press releases.  If proponents were serious about reform, the ordinances would provide that willful violations be punishable as misdemeanors.

Ad Hoc Committees

 If proponents were serious about opening up city government to the public, they would require that all meetings of council ad hoc committees be conducted in full accordance with the Ralph M. Brown Act (“Brown Act”), which would require advance public postings of agendas, public access to meetings, the public’s opportunity to be heard and publication of meeting minutes, excepting only for matters that can properly be considered in executive session under provisions of the  Brown Act (such as litigation and personnel matters).

Requiring ad hocs to just give an oral report on the substance of their closed-door meetings at the next council meeting is ineffectual.  There is no way to determine if such reports are accurate or honest.  The requirement is so vague that an oral report that merely states that “we had a robust discussion of X” would suffice to comply with the mandate.  The council needs to give up its proclivity to use secretive ad hoc proceedings and bring all of their committees fully into the light by subjecting them to the Brown Act.

Policy on Public Records Management Policy and Retention Schedule

City policy on the availability to the public of city records is a major policy matter that should be set by the city’s highest policy-making body, the City Council.  Instead, the proposed sunshine ordinance (in section 4.04.080) delegates the power to establish the city’s “records management policy, which …include[s] the city’s records retention schedule” to the city clerk.  That must change.  The city clerk performs ministerial duties and is not authorized by the city charter to set city policy.

Failure to Address Retention of City E-Mails, Use of Private E-mail Accounts

The proposed sunshine ordinance does nothing to assure that specific city records will be available to the public.  It fails to set retention schedules for critical records, including city e-mails that have become the primary communication method for city government.  Due to the falling costs of electronic storage, city e-mails can be kept almost indefinitely for minimal costs.  The city no longer faces old concerns over bulging file cabinets and pricey office space needed to store an ever expanding volume of physical documents.   City e-mails should be stored for a minimum of 10 years, not the two years provided under the city’s obsolete policy.  With modern search tools and storage devices, the volume of retained city e-mails has little impact on the city’s ability to identify e-mails sought by the public.

Similarly, the proposed sunshine ordinance utterly falls to address the growing problem of city officials using private e-mail accounts and servers to shroud and prevent public disclosure of e-mails involving city business, undermining the spirit California Public Records Act.   We are mindful that California courts are currently split on the status of such e-mails, but there is no legal or policy reason why the city council cannot or should not adopt a provision in the sunshine ordinance that requires that all city business e-mails be received and transmitted using only city-issued e-mail accounts and mandate that all e-mails passing through such city-issued accounts be deemed city records.

Proposed Ethics Code Lacks Critical Elements

The proposed ethics code is almost entirely a rehash of existing state law, city law and city practices.  It includes neither a general requirement that city employees act ethically, nor any specific standards of behavior or prohibitions of wrongful behavior.  It is a mere gloss of duplications, slightly expanded training requirements, and another unenforceable obligation to provide future recommendations for improvements.

The major provisions that are missing from the proposed ethics codes are:

  • It fails to give the ethics commission the authority to initiate removal proceedings in Superior Court against senior city officials in cases of corruption or egregious misconduct in office.
  • It fails to require council members to abstain from voting on matters that will financially benefit their major campaign contributors.
  • It fails to limit the out-sized behested payments that create the public appearance that donors are buying influence, particularly donors who give large sums to nonprofits controlled by the soliciting officeholder.
  • It fails to prohibit city officials from accepting post-city employment with firms that have financially benefitted from the decisions of such city officials.
  • It contains no requirement that city officials promise to testify truthfully before the council, with potential career consequences for failure to keep their promise.

Extensive Failure to Include Provisions Called for in the Framework

The proposed sunshine ordinance fails to include eight of the 12 provisions called for in the Framework, while the proposed ethics ordinance fails to include seven of the 12 provisions of the Framework.  It is inexplicable how city staff, after Council approval of the Framework, could fail to include over one-half of its terms.  The duty of city staff is to carry out to the will of the City Council, not to decide which Council edicts to follow and which they can ignore.

Conclusion

The proposed ordinances demonstrate a lack of commitment to the values of open government and accountability for the ethical conduct of city business.  The ordinances may hoodwink the public into believing that real reforms have been adopted – for a while.  But if these ordinances are adopted as proposed, it shouldn’t take long for the public to discover just how ineffectual they are in responding to the problems of opaque city government and unethical conduct by city officials.

We urge you to reject the proposed drafts and implement real reform.  If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to call me at (916) 718-3030.

Very truly yours,
Craig Powell, President

 

Enclosures
cc: City Council
John Shirey, City Manager
James Sanchez, City Attorney
Shirley Concolino, City Clerk
Media Distribution List
EOS Board of Directors
Open Government Subgroup

Watchdog group seeks ethics reforms at Sacramento City Hall

CITY BEAT

SEPTEMBER 2, 2015

HIGHLIGHTS

Eye on Sacramento says city has ‘tremendous vacuum of accountability’

Group wants city to adopt plan, but will go to ballot if needed

Ethics, redistricting commissions part of recommendations

Judge orders Sacramento to save 15 million emails

Mass deletions put on hold in court decision

No timeline for email release

Other emails on city affairs will need new request

City Hall 2

In an effort to stop Sacramento from deleting hundreds of emails, watchdog group Eye on Sacramento has sued the city and requested a temporary restraining order preventing city staffers from deleting any correspondence. | Jose Luis Villegas Sacramento Bee file

BY DARRELL SMITH

dvsmith@sacbee.com

The city of Sacramento must preserve 15 million emails on its server for review, a Sacramento Superior Court judge ruled Friday in a victory for two Sacramentans who requested access to the city-stored information.

After nearly two hours of argument Friday, and amid Judge Shelleyanne W.L. Chang’s own concerns that the petitioners’ request for records represented “a moving target,” the judge granted a preliminary injunction ordering the city to save the emails. Chang also levied an $80,000 undertaking – an $8,000 bond that plaintiffs must pay the city to review the records. Chang in June granted a temporary restraining order stopping the city from deleting the emails, giving both sides time to work out an agreement to provide the records.

“As of July 1, the city was going to destroy the emails. As of today, they’re going to save 15 million. That’s pretty good,” said attorney Paul Nicholas Boylan, who represented Sacramento residents Katy Grimes and Richard Stevenson, following the afternoon hearing.

Grimes and Stevenson filed separate public records requests in June for emails the city planned to delete as irrelevant to the public record. Grimes had asked for city emails from Jan. 1, 2008, to present, while Stevenson requested emails that were to be deleted July 1 as part of the city’s planned move to another email system.

“We’re happy with the 15 million. It’s a big victory for the public,” Boylan said.

THE JUDGE ORDERED US TO DO WHAT WE WERE WILLING TO DO. WE’RE WILLING TO RELEASE PUBLIC RECORDS

Sacramento City Attorney James Sanchez, following Chang’s ruling

Chang, however, said Stevenson must file a new public records request for city-stored emails pertaining to city pension and retirement; Measures Q and R (the failed ballot initiatives that would have raised the sales tax to help pay for a downtown arena); and so-called “release time” – the on-job time city employees can dedicate to union and other activities.

City attorneys argued that the requests were an effort to dictate how the city retains its information and repeated its June argument that the plaintiffs’ requests were overly broad and too heavy a burden for city staff to meet. They also said emails needed to be culled from the present system before others are migrated into a new system in a process to proceed as early as August.

During the hearing, city attorneys did not indicate how long it would take to fulfill the request.

“It’s going to take us to 2030” to fulfill the email requests, Supervising Deputy City Attorney Gustavo Martinez said during the hearing, “because we have to review them all. The fact that we’ve offered 15 million (emails) is amazing. I don’t know of a city that’s done that.”

“The petitioners want to dictate the policy of the city of Sacramento,” Martinez continued. “We can’t allow two people to stop, halt and interfere with the affairs of the city. ”

But Boylan argued that the records request was not an attack on city policy, but an assertion of his plaintiffs’ right to review the emails.

“There is no greater denial of a record than destroying it before someone can see it,” Boylan told Chang. “Public records are the public’s property. We want access to as many records as possible.”

Darrell Smith: 916-321-1040@dvaughnsmith

 

 

 

 

Press Conference On Suit to Halt City of Sacramento’s Mass Deletion of City E-mails

MEDIA RELEASE

Date/Time: July 23, 2015; 11:00 a.m.
Contacts: Erik Smitt, Policy Director,
Eye on Sacramento
E-mail: erik@eyeonsacramento.org
Phone: (916) 215-2275

Paul Nicholas Boylan, Attorney,
E-mail: PNBoylan@gmail.com
Phone: (530) 297-7184

Eye on Sacramento Holds Press Conference at County Courthouse

On Suit to Halt City of Sacramento’s Mass Deletion of City E-mails

At a press conference today, Eye On Sacramento, a member of the growing community coalition advocating for robust ethics, transparency and redistricting reform of City government, provided  updates on the lawsuit against the City of Sacramento to enforce the California Public Records Act (CPRA) to prevent the City from deleting over 50 million emails that form an irreplaceable part of the public record.

A Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) was granted by the Honorable Judge Shelleyanne W. L. Chang on July 7, which restrained the City from destroying these emails on Wednesday, July 8, as the City had planned.

The hearing for the Permanent Injunction will take place at the Gordon D. Schaber Sacramento County Courthouse, 720 9th Street, Sacramento, tomorrow, Friday, July 24, 2:30 pm, Department 24, the Honorable Judge Shelleyanne W. L. Chang presiding.

The Petitioners are asking Judge Chang to issue a Permanent Injunction preventing the City from erasing the public record and destroying the emails the petitioners want to access.  If the City destroys these emails, the public’s constitutional right to access these emails will be irrevocably injured and the City will be in violation of the California Public Records Act.

The Petitioners in the lawsuit are Richard Stevenson, a member of Eye on Sacramento, and Katy Grimes, Journalist.  Both Petitioners have filed formal requests to access emails the City intends on destroying and are suing the City under the CPRA to enforce their rights to gain access to these records.  The Petitioners, through attorney Paul Boylan, have made tireless efforts to reach an agreement with the City Attorney; those efforts have failed.

Since the TRO, Eye on Sacramento has contacted several City Council-members to resolve the issues through the enactment of new City policies that would mandate that City officials preserve City e-mails. Councilmembers will not speak with EOS on the advice of the City Attorney.

“It is clear that the City’s issues with e-mail storage space are a mere front for the objective of erasing history and covering up the past.” Erik Smitt, Policy Director.

“Eye on Sacramento is focused on transparency and citizen access to all mechanisms of government.  Deletion of public records is contrary to the principles of open government and the public’s right to know.” Erik Smitt, Policy Director.

Concurrently with the press conference, Paul Boylan, attorney for the petitioners in the case, issued the following statement: “The discussions I have had with the City have been productive, but only up to a point that is far short of resolving this conflict.  I am left with the impression that the City’s only goal is to destroy as many emails as possible and is gaming the system to achieve that goal.  The City’s goal should be preservation of public records. Thus far, the City has demonstrated no pressing need to destroy anything.”

Open Government … transparent, responsive, accountable!

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Eye On Sacramento calls for Moratorium on deletion of City of Sacramento e-mails … in the news …

Press coverage of the Eye On Sacramento press conference regarding City of Sacramento e-mail deletion.

City of Sacramento to delete old emails News 10 ABC

Group Asks City To Delay Deleting Emails  Capital Public Radio

Don’t rush into email purge  Sacramento Bee

Sacramento City to Delete All its Emails  KFBK News Radio

City Ethics and Transparency Reform Project

Sign the petition to the City of Sacramento, here

Eye On Sacramento calls for Moratorium on deletion of City of Sacramento e-mails

MEDIA RELEASE

June 29, 2015
Contact: Erik Smitt, Policy Director
916-215-2275

At a press conference today on the steps of Sacramento City Hall, leaders of Eye On Sacramento, a member of the community coalition pressing for robust ethics, transparency and redistricting reform of City government, called on City officials to halt the City’s announced plan to mass delete City e-mails on July 1st and to place a six-month moratorium on the deletion of City e-mails pending the ongoing and robust community conversation over needed reform of City government.

“The Ethics and Transparency Reform Project has drawn hundreds of City residents to public forums.  These forums held in every council district in the City over the past three months with the consistent message we received was loud and clear: the people of Sacramento want a major upgrade of ethics and transparency in their City government.  Even the City council has an ongoing initiative to upgrade City ethics and transparency.  For City officials to even entertain the idea of a mass deletion of millions upon millions of City e-mails dating back years in the face of this citizen-led reform movement is an affront to the will of the public and their aspirations for a more open, more responsive and more ethically accountable City government.” said Eye On Sacramento, Debra Desrosiers.

“We call on the mayor, the City council, the City manager and the City clerk to do the right thing, to do the responsible thing,  and stop the deletion.  The cost of electronic storage of e-mails has dropped to virtually nothing in recent years, imposing no burden on City government.  The cost of searching such e-mails to respond to the public’s request for records is a necessary cost of open government and democracy, not a reason to shred the history of the City, to frustrate the public’s legitimate access to public records or to stymie pending and future civil and criminal investigations into potential wrongdoing and lawbreaking by City officials,” said EOS Policy Director Erik Smitt.

Smitt added, “How many e-mails are City officials planning to trash?  Believe it or not, even City clerk Shirley Concolino has no idea how many would be deleted.”  “We have no way of knowing,” she stated in a recent e-mail to Craig Powell, President of Eye On Sacramento.

“We know from hearing from citizens at our forums that City government is operating with a major league trust deficit,” said Eye On Sacramento,  Erik Smitt.  “Citizen trust in City government, indeed, all levels of government, is at an all-time low.  We see it in falling participation rates in City elections and City meetings.  We see it in recent election results. We all hear it at the grocery store, in the coffee houses and around the dinner table.  Let’s be clear: there is no better way to rebuild the public’s trust in City government than to adopt meaningful ethics and open government reforms and there is no better way to further destroy that trust than to mass delete decades of City e-mails in the face of public calls for greater transparency in City government,” Smitt added.

As part of the press conference, EOS Policy Director Erik Smitt delivered a gift of a one-terabyte USB drive to the clerks at the public counter of the City clerk’s office, which provides enough storage space, he says, to store approximately 10 to 25 million e-mails, which EOS acquired for a total cost of $65.09

At least two citizens of Sacramento, with standing, have made Public Record Requests that include emails planned for deletion

Under the City’s new records policy, e-mails would be deleted two years after their transmission or two years after the project to which they relate is completed.

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Speakers included:

Erik Smitt, Policy Directory, Eye On Sacramento
Debra Desrosiers, Eye On Sacramento Board Member
Jean Fleury, Eye On Sacramento Board Member
Joe Rubin, Journalist and Investigative Reporter

Lawsuit Filed in Sacramento County Superior Court to Enforce the California Public Records Act

MEDIA RELEASE

July 6, 2015
Contact:
Erik Smitt, Policy Director, 916-215-2275, Erik@ eyeonsacramento.org
Paul Nicholas Boylan, Attorney, 530-297-7184, PNBoylan@gmail.com

In a press release today Eye On Sacramento, a member of the community coalition advocating for robust ethics, transparency and redistricting reform of City government, notifies the press that a lawsuit has been filed with the Sacramento County Superior Court seeking to enforce the California Public Records Act (CPRA), and an application has been made for a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) to prevent the City of Sacramento from deleting emails that form a critical, irreplaceable part of the public record.

If the application for a TRO is denied, the City will destroy these emails on Wednesday, July 8.

The hearing for the TRO will take place at the Gordon D. Schaber Sacramento County Courthouse, 720 9th Street, Sacramento, on July 7, 2:30 pm, Department 24, the Honorable Judge Shelleyanne W. L. Chang presiding.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Richard Stevenson, member of Eye On Sacramento and Katy Grimes, President of the Sacramento Taxpayer’s Association. Both Plaintiffs have made formal requests to access to emails the City intends on destroying on July 8 and are suing the City under the CPRA to enforce their rights to gain access to these records.

Plaintiffs are asking Judge Chang to issue a TRO preventing the City from destroying the emails Plaintiffs want to access because, if the City destroys these emails, the lawsuit will be rendered moot and Plaintiffs’ – and the public’s – constitutional right to access these emails will be irrevocably injured.

“My clients understand the City’s desire to manage the City’s email archive,” said Paul Nicholas Boylan, the attorney representing the plaintiffs in the CPRA enforcement lawsuit. “But the City’s interest can’t violate the public’s fundamental right to access public records. The City’s plan to destroy these emails after my clients have asked to see them is like a librarian burning down an entire library because a member of the public has asked to check out and read one book,” Boylan said. “It is unthinkable that this might actually happen.”

As noted in news reports of an ongoing trial in Sacramento Superior Court, public officials have deleted records even after legal notifications to preserve those same records. Eye On Sacramento supports Richard Stevenson and Katy Grimes in their lawsuit to enforce the California Public Records Act and their application for a restraining order to prevent the City of Sacramento from destroying public records.

“Eye On Sacramento is focused on transparency and citizen access to all mechanisms of government. Deletion of public records is contrary to the principles of Open Government and the public’s right to know.” Erik Smitt, Policy Director.

Open Government … transparent, responsive, accountable!

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