Sacramento council’s ad hoc panels are an affront to open government

By the Editorial Board

May 13, 2015 05:00 PM

Sacramento City Councilmen Allen Warren, left, and Steve Hansen talk after Tuesday’s council meeting, where there was a testy exchange over a budget increase for Mayor Kevin Johnson’s office. They also disagreed about an ad hoc committee meeting privately on “good governance” reforms. Jose Luis Villegas jvillegas@sacbee.com
Sacramento City Councilmen Allen Warren, left, and Steve Hansen talk after Tuesday’s council meeting, where there was a testy exchange over a budget increase for Mayor Kevin Johnson’s office. They also disagreed about an ad hoc committee meeting privately on “good governance” reforms. Jose Luis Villegas jvillegas@sacbee.com

Slowly but surely, the Sacramento City Council is making progress on a set of good government reforms.

But council members are undermining their supposed commitment to transparency by dismissing a problem staring them in the face – their addiction to ad hoc committees that meet in secret to discuss significant issues.

The hypocrisy of using an ad hoc committee to study “good governance” behind closed doors can’t be lost on them, right?

Vice Mayor Allen Warren, who heads the panel appointed by Mayor Kevin Johnson in November, said at Tuesday night’s council meeting that it will host three public meetings starting May 27 at City Hall on a proposal for a neighborhood advisory committee.

That’s welcome, but far from enough.

By contrast, Eye on Sacramento and the League of Women Voters have been holding public forums on these reforms, which also include an independent budget analyst who is about to be hired, an ethics code, a “sunshine” ordinance and an independent commission to redraw council districts after the 2020 census.

The two groups are also likely to push for limits on ad hoc committees as part of their recommendations. They need to keep up the pressure to make sure the council goes along in its report later this year.

As The Sacramento Bee’s Ryan Lillis reported on Sunday, 28 of these committees have been created since 2006. Two others – on public safety and water – are meeting now. Because they don’t have a majority of council members on them, they don’t have to follow the state’s open-meetings laws.

While these panels can’t vote on ordinances, they aren’t without influence. Too often, they’re used to hash out sensitive subjects – the new arena, K Street development, top city officials’ pay – without the press or public watching. There’s no compelling reason why all these issues can’t be debated in regular council committees – in the open.

Like other addictions, the first step to recovery is to acknowledge there’s a problem. These ad hocs are an affront to open government. The longer council members pretend otherwise, the worse the damage to public trust.