Sacramento City Council holds private ‘ad hoc’ meetings without documentation

By Ryan Lillis

rlillis@sacbee.com

May 09, 2015 04:25 PM

The Sacramento City Council takes many steps to ensure the details of its regular weekly meetings are made public. Agendas are generally posted five days before meetings are held, and a video broadcast of those meetings is often available on the city’s website just hours after sessions adjourn.

However, a roster of committees made up of City Council members meet in secret, their agendas and even their schedules unavailable to the public.

The council has three such “ad hoc” committees composed of three or four council members apiece. By limiting membership to four – one less than a majority of the nine-member City Council – the committees are not subject to the state’s open meeting laws.

Since 2006, the mayor and City Council have formed 28 ad hoc committees, according to a list compiled by the city clerk’s office. The committees have formed to discuss downtown arena proposals, debate the compensation of top city officials and explore parts of Mayor Kevin Johnson’s strong-mayor proposal last year. Other committees have debated water projects and utility rates, while two committees convened in 2013 to respond to critical grand jury reports.

The committees cannot pass new city laws, and they serve only in an advisory role to the City Council or to department heads. However, the committees rarely issue formal recommendations or reports that are made public at open City Council meetings.

An ad hoc committee formed by the mayor in November is exploring a series of “good government” proposals, including the formation of an ethics code and a citizens’ commission tasked with drawing City Council district boundaries. While the purpose of that committee is to make local government appear more transparent to the public, a Sacramento Bee request to attend a recent meeting of the committee was denied.

Ben Sosenko, a spokesman for the mayor, said in an email that “anything that comes out of the (good government) ad hoc committee will go to a public hearing that will be fully debated publicly before being voted on by the council.” The City Council is scheduled on Tuesday to receive an update on the ad hoc committee’s progress.

A coalition of organizations that includes local watchdog group Eye on Sacramento and the League of Women Voters will likely seek a limitation on ad hoc committees as part of a package of city government reforms they will propose in the coming weeks, said Craig Powell, head of Eye on Sacramento.

He said the committees should exist only for council members to discuss confidential matters such as lawsuits involving the city, personnel decisions and contract negotiations. The full City Council now discusses those topics during closed sessions before its regular meetings.

If the council doesn’t approve the coalition’s proposed changes, the group has said it is prepared to seek a government reform ballot measure in November 2016.

“A bad habit has developed by this City Council,” Powell said. “(Ad hocs) started with a narrow focus and expanded to cover areas that are truly public matters that do not require secrecy. And it’s time to stop it.”

Some California cities have taken steps to either do away with ad hoc committees or make them more transparent. It’s difficult to track whether most cities have ad hocs; very few municipalities post meeting information about the committees on their websites.

A “sunshine ordinance” adopted in 2005 in Riverside requires all ad hoc meetings in that city to be open to the public. Since the measure passed, “I can’t recall a single ad hoc that was formed,” City Clerk Colleen Nicol said.

Stockton posts videos of ad hoc meetings on its website. “That’s just been our standard operation,” City Clerk Bonnie Paige said. “We make them public.”

And in Irvine, two council members sit on an ad hoc panel that looks for public and private dollars to fund affordable housing for veterans. The agendas and meeting minutes for that body are available on the city website.

Sacramento’s City Council could make its ad hoc meetings public. But that change would require a policy decision by the council, City Clerk Shirley Concolino said. The council has not had that debate in the 25 years Concolino has worked at City Hall, she said.

With only a small number of members appointed to ad hocs, Councilman Larry Carr said the committees can create divides on elected bodies and “tend to undermine the unity of the board as a whole.” However, Carr said he does not think Sacramento should prohibit the committees.

On a typical Tuesday night, the City Council can vote on 30 or 40 items. Many of those issues come with staff reports or contracts that are hundreds of pages long. Ad hoc committees, according to Carr, can help the council make informed decisions on sensitive issues.

“If you don’t divide the work, it becomes impossible,” he said. “Ad hocs at least have council members looking at a piece of the pie.”

Call The Bee’s Ryan Lillis, (916) 321-1085. Read his City Beat blog at sacbee.com/citybeat.