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Sac City Council Vents on Building, Utilities Controversies

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(Sacramento, CA)
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
For nearly two hours Tuesday night, the Sacramento City Council meeting sounded something like this:
Fong: “For those of our folks who are charged with supervising and managing, why don’t you know what’s going on in your department?”
Hammond: “It is essential that our employees understand right from wrong.”
McCarty: “As far as quid pro quo, that’s just a toxic conversation.”
Council members Rob Fong, Lauren Hammond and Kevin McCarty were reacting to the findings of an outside investigation into dozens of illegally-issued building permits in Natomas. It says the city under-charged or under-collected $300,000 in permit fees. And it lists several areas for further investigation – including, as McCarty pointed out, a potential quid pro quo – in other words, "You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours."
City officials suggested referring the findings to the city council’s audit committee. But a majority of council members – including Sandy Sheedy – said the investigation should remain at the full council.
Sheedy: “The city of Sacramento has at least two completely dysfunctional departments. This council needs to understand what has gone wrong in city government, and we need to fix it – period.”
But just as notable as who did speak was who didn’t. The only members of the public who spoke up had a vested interest in the matter. Sacramento’s top administrator, City Manager Ray Kerridge didn’t utter a word. And other than running the meeting, Mayor Kevin Johnson was quiet too – even though he said at a press conference earlier Tuesday:
Johnson:There seems to be a pattern of either mismanagement or poor judgment.”
Finally, after all the talk, the council took one action. Councilman Steve Cohn’s motion to have city officials search for an outside auditing firm came and went so quickly, it was almost an afterthought.
Cohn: “… and schedule hearings as soon as possible …”
Johnson: “Motion, second … All in favor, signify by aye”
Council members: “Aye…”
Johnson: “Any opposed, noes … any abstentions, motion passes …”
And that was it. The council moved on to the next item – which, as it happens, was the other controversy. That’s the one where this month’s Sacramento County Grand Jury report suggested the city had illegally and repeatedly used utilities revenues – like water and sewage – for general city expenses. In the only time he spoke all night, City Manager Ray Kerridge, acknowledged the misuse of funds, but said the legal issues needed more study.
Kerridge: “The Department of Utilities, the City Manager’s office and the City Attorney’s office have been working on solutions, but frankly, even now, we’re not at a point to bring this to the City Council as many issues are not well understood.”
Councilwoman Lauren Hammond erupted. She pulled out her utility bills – which she had brought to the meeting – and said her rates had jumped 35 percent since 2003.
Hammond: “I have to tell you – I have no confidence in your cost allocations. It’s not personal; I just don’t believe you. I don’t think that you can prove to me that the increase in these rates every year have really gone just to providing the service – and I’m not alone in that thinking.”
But council members took no action on the issue Tuesday night – because city officials didn’t ask them to. Instead, officials will return in March with their recommended response to the grand jury report. That’s about the same time the council could get the chance to approve the hiring of the outside auditor for the building department.
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