Fire Alarm … Ambulance Reform Would Challenge Firefighters Union

By Craig Powell

In some sense, the city’s fire department is a 20th century relic operating in a 21st century world. And with its entrenched practices staunchly protected against change by what’s acknowledged to be the city’s most powerful union, Fire Fighters Local 522, the fire department has been essentially immune to efforts by city officials to drag it into modernity. Few have even tried to reform it; none has come anywhere close to succeeding.

To his credit, freshman Councilmember Jeff Harris has stepped up to the plate and is making cost-saving reform of the city’s ambulance service, operated by the fire department, a major priority. What’s more, he may very well succeed where most haven’t even bothered to try.

Why is the fire department so resistant to change? Fire chief Walt White is only the 21st chief in the department’s 165-year history. And he’s the first chief in city history to be appointed from outside of the ranks of the fire department. Organizational change is not exactly a prevailing value in the fire department. White didn’t have to travel far to take the job. Before joining the fire department last year, White spent his career with the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District, a nearby district with a long history of paying firefighter salaries that are among the highest in California and a district board dominated by members elected with the financial support of Local 522.

Apart from history and tradition, the status quo in the fire department is vociferously defended by Local 522, whose political action committee typically brings in $150,000 annually and whose cash balance stood at $330,000 at the end of last year. It showers money on candidates for city council. When Angelique Ashby ran for the council in 2010, Local 522 not only gave her campaign $6,500; it spent another $26,826 in an independent expenditure campaign on her behalf. Such outsized political “investments” buy influence and power.

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Balanced in Name Only … Small budget surplus is no cause to break out the champagne

Published on Sunday, 01 June 2014

Balanced in Name Only

Small budget surplus is no cause to break out the champagne

By Craig Powell

There is only a tiny handful of policy wonks who actually look forward to the release each year of the city manager’s proposed city budget for the fiscal year that starts on July 1. I’m one of them. City budget manager Leyne Milstein drove that point home in my interview of her last month, joking that I was one of only three people who have actually read the document that only a wonk could endure, much less enjoy.

But endure it I did and, knowing that most of you don’t spend your nights curled up with the city budget, I’m offering you the CliffsNotes version of it this month.

The good news is that after five years of battling chronic budget deficits, city manager John Shirey is proposing a $383 million general-fund budget that actually ekes out a small $2 million budget surplus. (The total city budget, which includes fee-collecting “enterprise funds” like city utilities, the convention center and marina, is actually $872 million, but most attention is paid to the city’s general-fund budget, which funds basic city services such as police, fire, parks, etc.) That means no cuts next year in services or city employees.

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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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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.

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