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California’s Capital City, Sacramento, Doubles as the Capital of Official Sneakiness
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Published 2 months ago on
February 22, 2024

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Sacramento violates Brown Act by giving city manager and others hefty raises in a special meeting.

Raises awarded despite $50 million budget deficit.

More secrecy surrounded a 70% business license fee hike on the March 5 ballot.


Sacramento is California’s capital, but that distinction is quickly being overshadowed by the city’s penchant for official sneakiness.

Dan Walters with a serious expression

Dan Walters

CalMatters

Opinion

City officials’ hide-the-pea tendencies first became obvious in December when the city council, after adjourning its regular meeting, reconvened for a special meeting to ratify new contracts with two employee unions.

Then, without any advance notice, it voted to give City Manager Howard Chan, already the state’s highest-paid city administrator, and several other top officials hefty salary raises.

Doing so was a blatant double violation of California’s Brown Act, which requires local governments to do their business openly. One section of the law requires 24-hour public notice of special meetings and another bars local governments from considering salary increases for their executives in special meetings.

Hefty Raises Approved Despite $50 Million Budget Deficit

Moreover, the council voted for those raises even though Chan and other city officials knew that Sacramento had a $50 million hole in its budget. Still, that was not publicly announced until a month later.

The Sacramento Bee blew the whistle on the illegal meeting and the city quickly retrenched. “The city agrees that an item regarding the salaries of its charter officers should be voted on at a regular meeting of the council,” city spokesman Tim Swanson told the Bee. “The city will bring this item back at the next regular meeting of the City Council on Jan. 9.”

When the $50 million deficit was finally revealed in January, Chan said it resulted from union contracts and other spending that outstripped revenues.

“What you all approved we can’t afford,” Chan told the council. “It’s not sustainable.” He ordered city departments to freeze hiring, travel, and purchases to save money.

The obvious implication is that Chan and other officials wanted to lock down their salary increases before revealing the big gap in city finances.

Another Sneaky Action

However, it was not the only example of municipal sneakiness.

This month, after materials for the March 5 election were distributed to voters, Sacramento’s small businesses and professional service providers were surprised to learn that a city-sponsored ballot measure, if passed, would increase their city business license fees by 70%.

Why, one might wonder, were those affected by the fee increase so surprised?

It turns out that the city council, with little discussion, had voted to place Measure C on the ballot way back in November, but city officials failed to honor a provision of the city charter requiring that a notice of the action be published in the city’s official newspaper within 10 days.

It didn’t publish it until Feb. 7, much too late for opponents to submit ballot arguments against it, and “only after The Bee Editorial Board had repeatedly requested a copy,” the newspaper reported.

There are late-blooming efforts by business groups to mount a campaign against Measure C, the Bee has editorialized that it should be rejected due to the sneaky process and if it passes, its validity will certainly be challenged in court.

An Innocent Mistake?

City officials continue to insist that the delay in publication was an innocent mistake that should not invalidate the measure because the city published it on its website.

During a city council meeting this month, Mayor Darrell Steinberg acknowledged the error but insisted “it was not a mistake … that in any way was attempting to mislead, and I think the best evidence of that, again, is the fact that the ordinance and the deadlines for filing the arguments were published online the very same night.”

The message to Sacramentans from these two incidents is that sneakiness is now official policy and they cannot rely on its officials to reveal what they are doing.

About the Author

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more columns by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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