Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg has committed to greater public transparency at Sacramento City Hall. Randy Pench rpench@sacbee.com
Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg has committed to greater public transparency at Sacramento City Hall. Randy Pench rpench@sacbee.com

Joyce Terhaar

Will Sacramento’s new city officials continue to keep secrets?

By Joyce Terhaar

jterhaar@sacbee.com

December 09, 2016 03:19 PM

Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg talks to reporters. When he isn’t talking plans for the city or public policy, he’s committing to greater public transparency once he steps into his new job at Sacramento City Hall this week.

That would be a welcome change from the recent reality of the Kevin Johnson era, during which reporters regularly sought interviews and regularly were shut out or directed to a spokesperson.

Communication has been most difficult when the news at hand was most troublesome – allegations of sexual harassment at City Hall, for example, or the ongoing controversy over the shooting death of Joseph Mann last July by two Sacramento police officers.

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In early November the city asked the U.S. District Court for a protective order, later signed by U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Barnes, in the federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the family of Mann.

The city wants to settle the lawsuit. Its court filing acknowledged it would need to share investigative files with the Mann family before it could “meaningfully” attempt to settle the case. The city specifically requested that those documents be prevented from release to the media or the public.

Documents that are part of an ongoing law enforcement investigation often are allowed to be kept secret through an exemption in the California Public Records Act. Where they typically then become available is through court lawsuits.

This investigation is about police behavior that already has had a profound impact on Sacramento, inciting protests, increasing activism and leading to a package of measures passed by the City Council this month intended to reform police accountability.

Shouldn’t more information be open to the public?

There ought to be a clear presumption of openness.

Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg

Reasonable people can debate whether or not it is best to keep secret the actions of police officers who fatally shoot someone. Yet Sacramentans have sent a loud message to City Hall that given the power afforded to law enforcement, they want transparency and accountability.

Protective orders, though, are about secrecy. And just to make all of this interesting from the view of public accountability, the order was requested under a city manager who no longer is in the job (John Shirey), a police chief who left his job Friday (Sam Somers Jr.) and a mayor on his way out (Kevin Johnson).

Who to hold accountable?

Steinberg has said repeatedly he favors more openness. He told The Bee’s Anita Chabria that “there ought to be a clear presumption of openness and the burden ought to be on the city attorney and the police to demonstrate in a compelling way why anything is not public.”

Steinberg, an attorney, also has made clear that fear of litigation cannot be the reason city officials keep secrets.

Since Steinberg is not yet in office, he told Chabria he was “a little hesitant” to say whether he would make the Mann settlement public because he does not yet know details of the negotiations.

Even so, Chabria said, “There has been a significant change in attitude since Howard Chan became interim city manager and Brian Louie was appointed interim chief.”

A bottleneck seems to remain with information that needs to be cleared by the city attorney.

Bee reporter Anita Chabria

“The city and police have become much more responsive to requests for information in recent weeks with the change in leadership,” she said. “A bottleneck seems to remain with information that needs to be cleared by the city attorney.”

The Mann case is just one that has generated attention and controversy in recent months – and it’s only one example of city secrecy.

Isaac Richard Knutila was a Sacramento police officer until, facing termination, he resigned last week. Knutila was arrested in November for possessing drugs including methamphetamine and heroin while also in possession of a loaded firearm, his .40-caliber duty pistol. He also had possession of an illegal .223-caliber Ruger Mini-14 semi-automatic rifle.

The Bee requested the names and number of people arrested by Knutila on drug or drug-related charges on Nov. 28, after his arrest. City officials gave Chabria the number, but told her they would not release the names because the documents are part of an ongoing investigation.

“The records you are seeking pertain to an ongoing criminal investigation. Release ... may interfere with the completion of the investigation, and potentially hinder the Sacramento Police Department’s ability to initiate additional criminal charges,” the city’s refusal letter said.

The city also denied, on Nov. 30, Chabria’s request for all audio and video of the April Dazion Flenaugh shooting, again using the reason that it is part of an “investigative file.” Yet new reforms passed by the council require such video to be released unless the council grants a special waiver. Will it?

This week we have a new mayor. At some point under new leadership, Sacramento will have a new city manager and new police chief. One criterion for all candidates ought to be a willingness to increase transparency at City Hall.

Joyce Terhaar: 916-321-1004, @jterhaar