Looking for Mayor Kevin Johnson? Don’t try City Council meetings

By Phillip Reese

preese@sacbee.com

July 22, 2016 06:00 AM

Mayor Kevin Johnson listens at a Sacramento City Council meeting in October, the same month he announced that he would not seek reelection. José Luis Villegas Sacramento Bee file
Mayor Kevin Johnson listens at a Sacramento City Council meeting in October, the same month he announced that he would not seek reelection. José Luis Villegas Sacramento Bee file

In his last year in office, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson has regularly left City Council meetings early without public explanation or skipped meetings altogether, leaving his colleagues to conduct city business without him, according to a Bee review of council minutes and video.

Since announcing in late October that he would not seek reelection, Johnson has stayed throughout only seven of the last 39 City Council meetings. He’s been absent from 16 of those meetings and left early 16 times.

Crystal Strait, Johnson’s chief of staff, said the mayor continues to work hard for the city – and that his work often takes him away from meetings.

“Being mayor doesn’t mean just attending City Council meetings,” Strait said in a statement. “The mayor works tirelessly for the city around the clock, and often times that means he needs to miss council or leave early. The mayor has been at council for every major decision that the council has made and will continue to do so.”

Strait said Johnson’s record of achievements speak louder than his council attendance record. “In the last year, the mayor has continued to lead on innovating and developing Sacramento’s economy, creating resources for our neediest communities, and bringing fiscal sustainability to our city budget,” she said.

City Council meetings often last several hours and can seem focused on minutiae, but they are also where the city’s most important and controversial decisions are made. The council has taken dozens of actions in meetings that Johnson missed the last few months.

He missed a meeting this week when the City Council considered placing a recreational marijuana tax measure on the November ballot. He missed a meeting in June where the council voted on creating a special event parking zone near the new downtown sports arena. He missed a meeting in May where the council passed a motion implementing key parts of its plan to combat homelessness. He missed another meeting in May where the council approved hundreds of thousands of dollars toward renovating the Community Center Theater and expanding the Sacramento Convention Center.

When he attends council meetings, Johnson often leaves early. Many times he left when less than an hour remained in the meeting. Other times he left closer to a meeting’s start. One thing is consistent: He hardly ever stays anymore to listen to comments from the public.

 

He hasn’t presided over the entire period designated for general public comment, which comes toward the end of council meetings, in four months, City Council minutes and video show. The last time he sat through an entire meeting with a public comment period was March 17.

The general public comment period often features residents who come to nearly every meeting and speak. They sometimes insult the mayor or council or shout; in recent months, homeless people and activists have called on the council to reverse a ban on outdoor camping. Public comment is also a time when residents tell the council about pressing concerns in their neighborhoods or express their frustration on issues ranging from city services to increased crime.

“And the mayor’s just leaving us!” said Robert Coplin, who was speaking during public comment May 17 as Johnson stood up and left the council chambers for the rest of the evening without explanation. “Why? You should be on time, in the seats, where you belong.”

The City Council typically meets about 55 times a year. In his first term, Johnson was a more consistent presence at council meetings, missing an average of seven meetings each year between 2008 and 2012. In his second term, Johnson has averaged 18 missed meetings each year.

The early exits from meetings are relatively new. He has left early from more meetings through July of this year than during all of 2015, council minutes show.

Heather Fargo, Johnson’s predecessor, was completely absent for three of 38 meetings between mid-October 2007 and mid-July of 2008, her last year in office.

 

Barbara O’Connor, emeritus director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Sacramento State, said Johnson needs to show up and vote at council meetings until his term expires and mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg is inaugurated in December.

“I think your constituents elect you to represent them,” O’Connor said, adding that Johnson is a personal friend. “Until your service is over, you need to do that … That’s what adults do.”

As mayor, Johnson earned about $121,000 in wages last year and another $31,000 in health and retirement benefits, according to the State Controller’s Office.

“I get that he wants to move on and become kind of the developer of Oak Park, but November is a long way away,” O’Connor said.

The Sacramento Bee’s Data Tracker is a weekly feature that offers a deeper look at the numbers behind today’s news. Phillip Reese: 916-321-1137, @PhillipHReese