Though we take it for granted, the Internet has greatly increased government transparency -- especially at the federal level. Now a new web site expands the potential of citizen scrutiny of government at the state level.
OpenGovernment.org, a joint project of the Sunlight Foundation and Participatory Politics Foundation, aggregates many types of information on state lawmakers: brief biography; contact info; sponsored bills; key votes; committee memberships; campaign contributions; interest group ratings; news, blog and social media mentions; and videos.
Reports from the Bee's investigative team
January 19, 2011
Though we take it for granted, the Internet has greatly increased government transparency -- especially at the federal level. Now a new web site expands the potential of citizen scrutiny of government at the state level.
If you've been wondering how to get to China or Switzerland from downtown Sacramento and relied upon a new sign outside City Hall, good luck.
The city installed a directional sign to each of its nine sister cities this week. To this point, however, the sign is suffering from direction dysfunction.
The sign for Liestal, Switzerland, points to the west. Jinan, China, is east of us, according to the sign. And San Juan de Oriente, Nicaragua, is north - not 2,500 miles southeast - if you believe City Hall.
Of course, you could get to all of those places by following the signs, it would just take a lot longer than the recommended routes.
City staffers said the directional placement is only temporary until the exact directions toward the sister cities can be determined and signs can be reset.
Once the process starts, don't be surprised if a sign or two seems a bit off; some cities are in the same general direction from Sacramento and the city wants to "fan" the signs out to create a visual balance, said city spokeswoman Linda Tucker.
In November, the City Council approved the placement of the sign in the plaza between old and new City Hall, close to 10th Street.
It was paid for with $8,000 out of a neighborhood fund controlled by former Councilman Ray Tretheway.
- Ryan Lillis
A U.S. senator has put a $440,000 stimulus grant for Gibson Ranch on his list of the most wasteful projects in the last year.
The grant will pay for energy improvements at a ranch house that hasn't been used in about a decade. It once served as a site for community functions in the 340-acre park near Elverta.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who has long railed against earmarks and other types of government spending, listed the project as the 18th most wasteful project in the country (out of 100 listed) in his "Wastebook 2010."
The guide points out that Gibson Ranch has been closed since September and Sacramento County officials aren't sure when it will reopen.
But county parks director Janet Baker said the grant will allow the building to be reopened by June. It will pay for heating, air conditioning and other energy efficiency improvements.
"It's one of the park's cornerstones," she said.
The county received the funding because it submitted a grant proposal under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
The county is also using a $140,000 state grant to fix the house.
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the grants? Developer Doug Ose, a former Republican congressman, who is negotiating with the county the county to take over Gibson Ranch. He says he hopes to reopen it by April 1.
As part of the proposal, the county is considering paying $100,000 a year for deferred maintenance at the ranch in addition to the grant projects.
- Brad Branan
December 30, 2010
Twin Rivers Unified School District Superintendent Frank Porter is asking his district to reimburse him for legal fees totaling $7,455.
Little is being said, however, about why the district should pay Porter's legal bills, other than they were incurred "within the scope of his employment," according to an school board agenda item. Twin Rivers trustees will vote Tuesday on whether to pay the fees.
District spokeswoman Trinette Marquis said the fees in question pertain to a district-related legal matter.
The school board agenda said redacted invoices with Porter's legal fees were submitted to the district dated July 15, Aug. 4, Sept. 7, Oct. 6 and Nov. 4.
The invoices were from Henry Kraft of Parker and Covert LLP, a Southern California law firm specializing in education. Correspondence from Kraft, according to the Twin Rivers agenda item, indicates the Association of California School Administrators paid $1,400 to Parker and Covert on Porter's behalf.
That leaves Porter with $7,455 in legal fees. The school agenda item says Porter's contract with Twin Rivers requires reimbursement of expenses for "matters within the scope of his employment."
Twin Rivers staff is recommending trustees approve the payment.
- Melody Gutierrez
The Sacramento City Unified School District has spent $1.5 million since March for six "priority schools" to undergo face-lifts and deep cleanings. And officials are seeing returns on the investment.
Targeted were Jedediah Smith, Father Keith B. Kenny and Oak Ridge elementary schools; Will C. Wood and Fern Bacon middle schools; and Hiram Johnson High School.
Superintendent Jonathan Raymond said those schools were failing the 4,600 students they serve. He set aside deferred maintenance money to power-wash the schools, repaint classrooms and improve landscaping.
At Johnson High, $220,580 was spent on interior classrooms and offices, $126,388 was spent on exterior buildings and $28,779 was spent on the parking lot and lawn, a district report states.
The report details a significant decrease in suspensions at each of the priority schools. In September, October and November 2009, those schools had 1,654 days of suspensions. In the same period this year, suspensions dropped to 427.
Schools get state money based on student attendance. A suspended student costs Sacramento City Unified $38.99 a day. The reduced suspensions generated $47,800.
- Melody Gutierrez
December 9, 2010
The city of Rancho Cordova, like other cities, has managed to balance its budget with belt tightening.
Nonetheless, it loosened the cinch a tad when it sent 14 city officials, including one consultant, to the League of California Cities convention in San Diego in mid-September.
That meant three of the five elected officials - Vice Mayor Robert McGarvey and council members Linda Budge and David Sander - attended in addition to three of the five appointees on the city Planning Commission.
Another seven people on the city payroll - in addition to the consultant - made their way to Southern California for the event.
Among executives in attendance were City Manager Ted Gaebler, Assistant City Manager Joe Chinn, the city's finance director and the city clerk.
Cost to taxpayers for travel, hotel accommodations, conference registrations, exhibits and staffing for the city's free convention booth: just under $21,000.
The seven city employees who attended represent about one out of every 10 workers on the city payroll.
City officials say the money was well spent. Participants were able to join in or lead sessions on best practices for running a city effectively.
Attendees at the latest convention could join sessions to learn how representatives from other locales cope with financial crises, how to aid the homeless in tight times, and how best to maintain good relationships with labor groups as revenues shrink.
Those active in the league also can shape the cities' agenda at the Legislature.
David Ivazian, a Rancho Cordova resident, examined the city expenditures and the comparative levels of participation from other cities.
The city of Rancho Cordova, the data show, went well beyond the statewide norm for sending people. Of the 375 cities in attendance, the average city sent three to four representatives.
In Rancho Cordova, registration for 12 of the 14 attendees reached $6,000. Airline tickets, for those who didn't drive, cost about $3,900. Hotel costs were $8,300. The booth exhibits cost $1,284. Meals, at just under $1,700, rounded out the city's expense.
"I said, 'Wow, that's a lot of money,' " Ivazian said when he first heard the cost. "I get really mad when people are wasting my money."
City spokeswoman Nancy Pearl said she was surprised at the focus on the city's convention attendance. "Several of our council members moderated or participated in sessions among their peers," Pearl said in a statement.
"The individuals who believe there is some scandal that they will uncover are brewing a tempest in a teapot," she said.
The positives tell the story, she said.
The city this year received the league's Helen Putnam Award for excellence in city administration, further showing the value of learning good practices at league events, she said.
Besides, Pearl said, the money spent was minimal compared with the city's $39.3 million general fund budget - about one-twentieth of 1 percent.
- Loretta Kalb
December 2, 2010
They've had enough with the squawking over at Sacramento City Hall.
No, we're not talking about political infighting. This one's for the birds.
The city has installed noise makers on the roof of City Hall to scare away hundreds of birds that flock to the trees along 10th Street.
The past two winters, those birds - mostly crows - have been turning the sidewalks around City Hall into a slimy, slippery mess. It reached a nasty level last winter, when the walkways were so caked with excrement that women in high heels could barely stay upright and city crews were forced to clean the pavement three times a week with a power scrubber.
After hearing from angry residents, the city decided to flap its wings. Sacramento spent $2,852 last month on a sound system that plays predatory noises to scare away the birds. While the feathered nuisances are still leaving their mark on the sidewalks, it isn't nearly as bad as last year.
"We still have to tweak it a little," said Gina Knepp of the city's Department of General Services. "It takes a little time to get it right."
Knepp said the money spent on the new system - which included the cost of labor to install the devices - will offset what the city spent last year on manpower to wash off the sidewalks.
"We'll get a return on that investment," she said. "And we don't want it to be so dirty down there."
- Ryan Lillis
November 11, 2010
The large turnout of firefighters and engines from agencies throughout the region for the recent memorial services for a Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District employee led a reader to ask who foots the bill for such participation.
The reader expressed appreciation for those wanting to honor a colleague who died in the line of duty but wondered about the overall impact on strained budgets and services.
Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District spokesman Capt. Christian Pebbles said a certain number of on-duty personnel are allowed to attend without depleting the firefighting force, and other agencies help by staffing stations. When those agencies suffer losses, Sac Metro returns the favor.
"Basically, it's a respect thing," Pebbles said. "Everybody takes a bit of a hit to put on the show."
Off-duty firefighters attending such services do so on their own time. Essentially, Pebbles said, the cost for fire personnel and equipment is no different from any other day, except for fuel and wear and tear on vehicles. Those costs come out of the district's general operating funds.
Sacramento County Sheriff's Department spokesman Sgt. Tim Curran said his agency follows a similar practice. On-duty personnel are allowed to attend services with the permission of their supervisor, as staffing allows.
Off-duty employees who attend do so on their own time. "We don't allow overtime," Curran said.
Fuel usually accounts for the extra cost, he said.
- Cathy Locke
November 11, 2010
The unofficial Kevin Johnson Mayoral Library is open - but just for himself and his colleagues on the Sacramento City Council.
City crews recently finished renovating a room on City Hall's fifth floor into a library at Johnson's request. Mayors can do whatever they want with the room. It's not clear how it was used under former Mayor Heather Fargo, but crews apparently had to remove lots of boxes when they began work.
The labor cost of the project - including fresh paint, a wall mounting for a flat-screen television and new electrical outlets - was $9,805, a city invoice says.
Johnson's aides said the mayor paid for most of the furnishings and that over the past two years, they had avoided many of the office upgrades afforded new mayors.
As the room is behind the locked door that separates the public from the mayor and council offices, you can't just walk off the street and spend a few minutes there. That privilege is reserved for council and its staff.
Still, it could be difficult for council members to plow through "War and Peace" there. In an e-mail sent to City Council offices announcing the opening of the library, Lisa Serna-Mayorga, the council operations manager, wrote she "will be most able to accommodate requests of under 60 minutes."
Priority for using the room goes to the mayor, of course. "He will be using the room for both scheduled and impromptu meetings with his staff and guests," Serna-Mayorga's e-mail said.
- Ryan Lillis
November 4, 2010
California voters weren't willing to pony up an extra $18 each year to underwrite state parks, while their neighbors to the north voted to funnel millions into their parks.
Key difference: California wanted to tap into the controversial vehicle registration fee to prop up the parks. Oregon went for lottery funds.
The resounding defeat of Proposition 21 - 58 percent of the voters opposed it - could send a message to other states. It was expected to raise $500 million annually for state parks and wildlife programs.
The approach has gotten widespread attention since Montana first approved the fee in 2003. Unlike California, though, Montana and several others states have made the extra registration payment optional for motorists.
This week, more than two-thirds of Oregon's voters agreed to continue indefinitely dedicating 15 percent of state lottery profits each year to parks and natural resources. In 1998, two-thirds of Oregon voters approved the lottery allocation through the end of 2014. It has raised more than $800 million.
Tapping into lottery money for parks is unlikely in California, where it would take another ballot measure to change voters' 1984 decree to fund education from the lottery pool, officials said.
Opponents of California's plan argued that the vehicle fee hike was a ruse by politicians to dump responsibility for state parks on voters and continue their wasteful spending.
- Marjie Lundstrom
November 3, 2010
In June this blog highlighted a study by the National Institute on Money in State Politics concluding that candidates who bankrolled their own campaigns fared poorer than those who didn't. The 2010 election cycle attracted a good many self-funders -- including Meg Whitman who poured $142 million of her own money into a failed gubernatorial bid. So how well did others do this time? Early indications suggest not so good.
At the federal level, only one in five self-funding candidates managed to win U.S. House and Senate seats. That's according to the watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics who compiled recent data on 58 congressional candidates including top spender Linda McMahon (R-Conn), who furnished virtually all the $46 million raised by her campaign. She lost the general election to Democrat Richard Blumenthal. Number two spender Jeff Greene (D-Fla), who provided almost all of his $23.8 million war chest, lost in the primary.
Also unsuccessful was California's Carly Fiorina, who gave $5.5 million to her $17.9 million race.
October 29, 2010
Outside political groups (i.e. organizations not directly affiliated with candidates) have come under a lot of scrutiny during this mid-term election cycle. That's because they are spending millions fo dollars to sway voters in state and federal races. The watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics says outside groups spent nearly $463 million so far. And a good deal of money is flowing into California. More than $45 million has been spent in the state by political committees formed by special interest groups.
Much of this funding pays for television advertising that expressly call for the election or defeat of specific candidates. In addition to posting data on campaign spending (broken out by type of group, ideology, race, candidate and other factors), the CRP web site now features video recordings of ads created by outside groups -- both liberal and conservative. Browsing these commercials provides a quick education into the aims and strategies of such organizations this year.
The majority of TV commercials posted by CRP are directed against candidates and generally play on the fears and outrage of average people. Typical are the Democratic and Republican congressional campaign committees -- the top two groups making outside expenditures. Also high on that list are the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads (the Karl Rove group) and the liberal Service Employees International Union and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
To get a taste of how outside advertising plays in California, check out the ads directed against Senate candidates Carly Fiorina and Barbara Boxer produced by Emily's List and the U.S. Chamber respectively.
October 8, 2010
Out of the 44,000 ZIP codes in the United States, which one gave the most money to congressional candidates and PACS in 2010? (Drum roll.) According to a new analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, it's 10021 (the Upper East Side of New York City), whose donors gave a total of $6.6 million.
Using federal campaign finance data, CRP built a donation database showing aggregate giving by state and ZIP and breaking out the figures by top recipients and contributors. It also calculated the relative proportion of money going to the two major parties. 10021, for example, gave 77 percent to Democratic candidates and groups identified with the Democrats. Twenty-three percent went to Republican ones.
On the state level, Beverly Hills 90210 lead California with total contributions of $3.13 million (76 percent Dem, 24 percent GOP).
On the regional level, the top ZIP turns out to be tiny Brooks 95606 giving a total of $467,050 (55 percent Dem, 45 percent GOP). (Not surprising, considering it includes the Cache Creek Casino.) Second in the Sacramento region is 95864 (home to a number of very politically-active business people). It gave $421,687 (60 percent Dem, 40 percent GOP). Coming in third is 95814 (center of state government and lobbying), which gave $308,225 (80 percent Dem, 20 percent GOP).
September 17, 2010
Miller-McCune magazine held a conference yesterday on the influence of lobbying on federal policy-making. Panelists discussed the non-intuitive findings of a 2009 book that found that lobbyists who spent the most money on a given issue prevailed only half the time. The authors of Lobbying and Policy Change: Who Wins, Who loses, and Why examined 100 randomly-selected issues in recent history that provoked interest group involvement. In most cases, the opposing sides cancelled each other out.
"Sixty percent of the time, nothing happens," said Frank Baumgartner, co-author of the study. "What we see is gridlock and successful stalemating of proposals, with occasional breakthroughs." So the result of lobbying is usually maintenance of the status quo.
That's not to say that money doesn't sway policy over the long run, Baumgartner observed. Power in Washington is tilted toward the wealthy, who through the years have accumulated many advantages written into law. The status quo reflects that reality.
September 16, 2010
Rocklin Unified will try to cut its energy costs without the help of a $1 million contract with an outside agency for now.
The school board voted Aug. 18 to form an advisory committee to look at ways to reduce energy use instead of hiring Energy Education, which specializes in energy conservation at school sites.
The decision came a week after the proposed contract was featured in this column.
But the board is leaving its options open. Its members said they want a report from the advisory group in four months. They will then revisit the idea of entering into an energy conservation agreement with a consultant.
District officials had hoped to reap $800,000 a year in energy savings with the help of Energy Education. The contract would cost $24,700 a month for four years and does not include the salary of an "energy specialist" and the cost of computer software. The software would have cost $13,950 the first year and $2,000 each year after that.
July 22, 2010
A coalition of environmental and consumer groups issued a new report detailing $200 billion in federal subsidies, to be distributed over the next five years, that allegedly harm the environment. The coalition, including Friends of the Earth, Taxpayers for Common Sense and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, cited more than $31 billion in giveaways to the gas and oil industry, including $9 billion for intangible drilling costs.
(AP photo of some of the more tangible costs of the BP spill in the gulf, below.)
Coal "gasification" will tap $8 billion in taxpayer help, and $28 billion will go to propping up commodity crops such as corn for ethanol -- regarded by some environmentalists as a bigger contributor to global warning than gasoline. More than $36 billion more will go to an ethanol excise tax credit, according to the report.
The groups called for steep cuts in what they termed wasteful benefits to environmentally harmful industries and projects.
Since 9/11, military outlays beyond the normal expenditures of maintaining a standing military capacity have topped $1.1 trillion -- an impressive price tag for a budget-strapped nation -- according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service. Corrected for inflation, the agency estimated the price of the ongoing Iraq and Afghanistan wars as higher than any other conflict in U.S. history, except World War II, which cost more than $4 trillion in today's dollars. (An explosion in Kandahar, Afghanistan pictured here. AP photo by Allauddin Khan.)
The report contains a fascinating chart that compares every military conflict in the nation's history, including American Revolution ($2.4 billion), the Vietnam War ($784 billion) and World War I ($334 billion).
The author, defense specialist Stephen Daggett, warns that such comparisons can't be made with the same precision the numbers might suggest. That's in part because different historical eras experienced different demands for ever-more costly war-fighting technologies. And as a percentage of the nation's GDP, today's war costs are far lower than nearly all prior wars. Still, as a rough gauge, the new study shows that the current wars already rank among the costliest in history.
Other analysts, such as Nobel prize winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes, have calculated vastly higher costs when including such items as support for soldiers who return from recent wars with grave medical or psychological problems.
There are times when you just don't want to be on top and this is one of them.
On this nifty map of the United States created by ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism operation, California has borrowed more than any other state to support its unemployment compensation debt.
In all, ProPublica reports, "twenty-six states have run out of money and been forced to borrow from the federal government." California easily beats the other 25, with sheer size and soaring unemployment pushing the debt to more than $7.5 billion. The next highest is Michigan, with $3.8 billion.
Of course Michigan is a quarter the size of California, so in a way they have us beat. But that's not a win to brag about.
About 25 percent of local and state government spending in California went toward education during 2008 -- a lower rate than all states except New York and Alaska, according to new census figures. Virginia and Vermont lead the nation. Important note: A map of per pupil spending would differ markedly from this map, mostly because some states have lean governments while others provide more services.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
July 15, 2010
You're not just imagining it. Those nearly-ubiquitous, highly irritating fees charged by airlines for everything from blankets and beverages to checked baggage have become a huge profit center for the industry. The U.S. Government Accountability Office, a research arm of Congress, reported recently that fees small and large added up to a whopping $3 billion in revenues for U.S. airlines last year. (At right, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport; photo by Associated Press.)
Among the highest fees found by the Agency: $35 for the first checked bag on Allegiant, $100 for sending an unaccompanied minor on several airlines, $175 for taking your pet in the cabin on Hawaiian, $12 for a blanket and pillow on Virgin America, and a whopping $14 for a some cocktails on Hawaiian. The report did not indicate if the cocktail included a little umbrella, or if that costs extra.
The agency recommended better and more complete disclosure of fees by airlines. Bon Voyage.
July 13, 2010
More than 1,000 properties in North Natomas are about to get tax bills from the city because they were undercharged for two years.
From 2007 to 2009, businesses and homeowners were undercharged special taxes earmarked to pay off bonds issued to help construct drainage facilities in the area. The total underpayment: $1.3 million.
A total of 1,075 property owners were undercharged, including a business that owes roughly $215,000.
Budget officials recently discovered the underpayments and sent out bills Friday. Most home and property owners were charged the wrong rates in fiscal years 2007-08 and 2008-09, officials said, but the error was fixed in time for the current fiscal year.
It won't be all bad news as the bills hit: 107 property owners actually overpaid.
The money will be used to pay back the debt secured to pay for the drainage facilities in what is called a Mello-Roos bond district. Community Facilities District No. 4 is most of the area north of Del Paso Road and east of Interstate 5.
The city will offer help to those who owe more than $400 and are not delinquent with their payments. One option will be to pay off the taxes over two years without interest or penalties.
In an e-mail, city spokeswoman Amy Williams said staff will "run audits and fix problems as they arise to help ensure that this does not happen again."
- Ryan Lillis
By law, corporations are forbidden from giving gifts worth more than $420 to state officials.
But when gifts arrive via a corporate-funded non-profit group, the sky is literally the limit.
One year ago this month, The Bee reported that top state officials, legislators and business executives have regularly fanned out across the globe on yearly, lavish "study travel projects" trips paid for by the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy, a non-profit funded by major corporations, including Chevron, PG&E and Southern California Edison.
That story documented stays at the five-star beachfront Copacabana Palace hotel in Rio de Janeiro and a safari in Kruger National Park in South Africa, and cited concerns of current and former state officials who went on the trips about the propriety of meeting with corporate executives behind closed doors.
Three months after The Bee story, state officials and business executives were off again on another foundation-funded trip, this one to China, according to state records dug up by citizen-journalist Jim Rothstein, through the California Public Records law.
Those records show the purpose of the trip was to investigate Chinese energy projects, low-carbon vehicles and broadband technologies -- but that it included plenty of downtime, including a stay at the Portman Ritz-Carlton in Shanghai plus sight-seeing and nature tours.
According to the documents Rothstein obtained, trip participants included members of the California Energy Commission, the Public Utilities Commission, State Senate and Assembly as well as executives from Chevron, Covanta Energy Corp., AES North America Pacific, Shell Oil, Calpine Corp., RRI Energy, Southern California Edison and two environmental groups, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Union of Concerned Scientists.
The cost of the two-week trip for Energy Commissioner Jeffrey Byron (pictured at right) was estimated at $12,200, including $6,350 for round-trip airfare from San Francisco to Shanghai.
July 2, 2010
Sacramento County government is grumbling about high bills from, well, Sacramento County government.
The District Attorney's Office is claiming the county's IT department (formally known as the Office of Communications and Information Technology, or OCIT) is overbilling them almost $320,000 in the fiscal year starting July 1. The DA told the Board of Supervisors during budget hearings that the money is enough to pay for two attorneys.
As odd -- or perhaps absurd -- as it may sound, government charges itself for services. It's an accounting thing. So, for example, when an IT guy helps the District Attorney's Office with computer issues, the DA's office pays an hourly rate to the IT department.
The dispute stems from officials' decision to change the way they billed for services. In the past, IT department labor rates were higher. The rates included not just the labor costs but also helped cover the department's debt payments and other overhead costs.
Large departments like the DA's Office do much of their IT work in house and therefore were relatively unaffected by the high rates. Smaller departments that relied heavily on OCIT, however, paid more.
Last year, top county officials decided to lower the labor rate and break out the debt service and some overhead costs as a separate fee for all departments based on a per-employee basis. This means the labor costs went down for those departments that use OCIT regularly, while the cost went up for some, like the DA, that traditionally have not.
"It's important to recognize that OCIT does not show a "profit" through its rates. We're talking about one-sized pie, which can be sliced in different ways. There was no net increase in revenue for OCIT with the new cost methodology," the county's chief of e-government and business services, Rami Zakaria, wrote The Bee in an e-mail.
In response to the DA's concerns, county officials are reviewing how they charge departments for overhead, administration and other centralized costs.
If the federal government is looking to trim costs, it might consider a hack at the amazing amount spent to keep secrets -- nearly $10 billion last year, according to a new report from the Information Security Oversight Office.
A bargain, you say? Bear in mind that this does not include costs for keeping the CIA (a declassified cover of the agency's 9/11 interrogation report is here) and Defense Department secrets secure. As Secrecy News blogger Steven Aftergood points out, those costs are, well, secret.
July 1, 2010
The Fair Political Practices Commission has posted the economic interest statements for elected officials including the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors.
The forms aren't necessarily shocking or even interesting. Susan Peters owns property. Roberta MacGlashan has some decent investments in major corporations. Jimmie Yee gave fellow supervisor Don Nottoli a $75 poinsettia plant.
But they do give a bit of an insight into the finances of the supervisors.
See for yourself:
The government is pumping out nearly a trillion dollars in economic recovery funds, but according to the US Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, most of the projects don't score well on following through with requirements to make their details known to the public. (A tally of some of the region's projects funded last year are noted in this graphic previously published in The Sacramento Bee.)
"An estimated three-quarters of the recipient-reported information did not fully meet GAO's transparency criteria -- thus potentially hampering understanding of what is being achieved with Recovery Act funding," the agency found. Overall, out of more than 14,000 projects, just 25 percent fully met the transparency criteria.
But the agency said that in some cases, federal and state websites provided supplementary information.
June 30, 2010
Almost $120 million in federal funding approved by Congress for mass transportation projects has gone unspent. The money sat in Federal Transit Administration accounts for years, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a government transparency group which obtained and analyzed over 150 earmarks from 2006 and 2007 that have all lapsed.
The largest earmarks include $19.6 million for a light rail system North Carolina's triangle region, almost $10 million to help build a bus terminal-performing arts complex in Rochester, N.Y. and $4.9 million for a proposed commuter train between Detroit and Ann Arbor, Mich.
The Sunlight web site provides details of other transit "disappearmarks" in a handy searchable spreadsheet. There is one local item among the 23 California projects listed. That is $190,357 to "improve entrance to the [Davis, Calif.] Amtrak Depot and parking lot, provide additional parking and improve service." The Davis earmark was approved for fiscal year 2006. One wonders what became of the project.
June 29, 2010
By Laurel Rosenhall
The family of Sacramento State President Alexander Gonzalez has been in the news before.
In 2005, the university hired Gonzalez's son, Alex Jr., for a $72,000-a-year fundraising job. By last year, he was earning more than $81,000 a year and had moved to a position in the public affairs office.
Now, a family member has been compensated by the university's nonprofit foundation, whose board of directors is headed by Gonzalez.
The University Foundation at Sacramento State paid the president's brother $4,500 to perform a Mexican harp concert, hold a student workshop and buy 100 of his CDs, according to foundation documents.
Francisco Gonzalez is a Tucson musician. Last year, he was touring California to promote a CD and stopped in Sacramento in October to play at the university's alumni center.
No taxpayer money was used to pay him. Funding came from the university foundation, a nonprofit that raises money to support the school, said Carole Hayashino, who heads university fundraising. The performance was an event to thank donors, and attendees received Francisco Gonzalez's CD, "The Gift."
The foundation paid him $3,000 for the concert and $1,500 for the CDs. It covered his two-night hotel stay for $190.78. Hayashino said Francisco Gonzalez and an accompanist shared the concert fee.
A sampling of contracts in the last year shows many musicians who played at Sac State earned $1,500 to $2,000. Because Francisco Gonzalez's pay was comparable, his contract did not violate the foundation's conflict of interest policy, Hayashino said.
Still, the performance was a sore point for some professors who have a history of strained relations with the president.
"I see this in a string of scenarios or situations that sound a lot like nepotism," said Kevin Wehr, a sociology professor active in the California Faculty Association.
President Gonzalez said he played no role in his son's hiring and wasn't involved in planning his brother's show. The president said his brother told him he would be touring and offered to stop at Sac State. The president said he mentioned the offer to the ethnic studies department and to Hayashino, who took the lead in planning the concert.
"In my view there's nothing unethical," Alexander Gonzalez said. "I'm not the one who paid him. I'm not the one who engaged him."
Hayashino said the foundation has to spend money to raise money and that the concert was one of many events it does to that end. The foundation has raised $18 for every dollar it's spent on fundraising activities, she said.
June 28, 2010
Meg Whitman contributing some $91 million of her own money in her bid for California governor prompts the question: just how successful have self-funded candidates been in the past? The National Institute on Money in State Politics examined the data for the past decade and concluded that candidates who bankroll their own campaigns win elections at a lower rate than candidates who do not. The Institute tracked 6,171 candidates between 2000 and 2009 who financed the bulk of their races (collectively contributing some $700 million of the total $850 million spent). Only 668 of these self-funded candidates (11 percent) were successful. Compare that to candidates who did not contribute much of their own money to campaigns (but who enjoyed a fundraising advantage). They won 87 percent of the time.
June 23, 2010
For two weeks, the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency has rebuffed efforts by The Bee to learn if salary increases were planned or completed. Finally, we learned yesterday that the agency's board granted or cleared the way for raises ranging from 2 percent to 17.7 percent for five employees.
This information came from Board members; agency executive Stein Buer has never responded to Bee queries -- even though one of his own board members says he publicly disapproved of the silent treatment. Public agencies, such as SAFCA, are obligated by law to make salary data available on request.
Board chair and Sacramento City Councilman Ray Tretheway justified the raises -- including 4 percent to one of SAFCA's executives, and 17.7 percent to a technical expert -- as needed to address pay equity concerns and because of how hard the employees work.
The problems with public disclosure at SAFCA continue: As of this morning, six days after the board meeting at which the salaries were approved, the video of the meeting had not yet been posted on the agency's website. SAFCA normally releases such video records within 48 hours.
Last year Buer himself got a 27 percent raise, to $195,000 annually.
June 22, 2010
A $400,000 grant from the California Department of Education meant fourth- and fifth-grade kids at three Elk Grove Unified elementary schools could learn to use technology to improve their language art skills.
It paid for projectors and 20 laptops for each grade level at Prairie, David Reese and Mary Tsukamoto elementary schools, said UC Davis' Carl Whithaus, the project evaluator.
A quarter of the money had to be used for teacher training, officials said.
The teachers started video blogs, taught how to put together digital videos and hooked students up with cyber pen pals to talk about books.
Tight budgets, however, resulted in many of the teachers being laid off or being sent to other campuses as the district reshuffles its staff, Whithaus said.
Six of the 18 teachers remain on the layoff list, said Elizabeth Graswich, district spokeswoman. She could not say how many of the remaining 12 would be moved to other schools from reorganization.
"Just because the teacher moves to another school doesn't meant they can't assist at another school," Graswich said.
"It's definitely tough," Whithaus said. "If you have a sixth-grade teacher reassigned to fourth grade, you have had none of the professional development related to writing or the technology to be really effective."
Before the personnel reshuffling, the program was actually working. Whithaus said that two of the three schools had higher test scores and the third met other goals.
"It's almost like hitting the ball out of the park," Whithaus said. "They hit the top of the wall."
- Diana Lambert
June 18, 2010
This blog previously reported our efforts to find out if the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency was about to give large compensation increases for its staff members. The agency is governed by representatives from several local government bodies and is mainly funded by the state. Government employees are suffering from furloughs and layoffs in the continuing economic malaise (as Sacramento County's grim numbers below show.)
As of Friday afternoon, the agency's executive director, Stein Buer, and its external press representative, Barbara Gualco of Gualco Consulting, still declined to respond to direct questions about possible compensation changes that may have been approved at the $279 million agency's Thursday board meeting although they were nowhere to be seen on the agenda.
Also on Friday, The Bee attempted to contact all of the agency's board members, so far without success, except in one case: Virginia Moose of the American River Flood Control District declined to comment.
"If [Buer and Gualco] are refusing to speak to you about it, I'm not going to either. It's not my place to do that," she said. "You'll have to try to try to convince them to talk to you about it."
SAFCA's silence is unusual for a public agency, which is legally obligated to make its policies and salary data available on request. The recent approach follows an episode last spring, when Buer had proposed raises of up to 51 percent for nine employees despite the economic crisis. His board turned him down after The Bee reported the plan. But it gave Buer a 27 percent boost, to $195,000 annually.
The agency was created in 1989 to help prevent flooding from the Sacramento and American rivers. Here are its other board members, who could not be reached as of Friday afternoon:
Ray Tretheway, SAFCA Chair and member, Sacramento City Council
John Shiels, SAFCA Vice Chairman, Reclamation District 1000
Roger Dickinson, Sacramento County Board of Supervisors
Jimmie Yee, Sacramento County Board of Supervisors
Susan Peters, Sacramento County Board of Supervisors
Don Nottoli, Sacramento County Board of Supervisors
Roberta MacGlashan, Sacramento County Board of Supervisors
Brian Holloway, American River Flood Control District
James Gallagher, Sutter County Board of Supervisors
Jeff Smith, Reclamation District 1000
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson
Bonnie Pannell, Sacramento City Council
- Charles Piller
Members of the Sacramento city council, which voted for economic sanctions against Arizona earlier this week, have taken more than $11,000 in campaign contributions from individuals and businesses based in Arizona during the last 18 months, campaign records show.
The contributions all came before Arizona passed a controversial immigration law that drew council members' ire, but they beg the question: Will council members still accept donations from Arizona? Will they be returning those checks?
Mayor Kevin Johnson would be in the biggest bind if he instituted a personal Arizona boycott, given his status as a former star for the Phoenix Suns NBA team. He took about $5,000 in donations from individuals with Arizona addresses last year -- and that was after he had already won his election for mayor.
But those were donations from individuals, while the council vote boycotts Arizona businesses.
By far, the largest Arizona business donating to city council members is Republic Services, a waste management company headquartered in Phoenix that operates in the Sacramento region.
Republic Services gave a total of $3,000 to five current council members during the last 18 months -- Steve Cohn; Lauren Hammond; Robbie Waters; Ray Tretheway and Kevin McCarty.
On Monday the Washington Post published its study of the personal finances of Congressional members in relation to their commitee assigments. The newspaper relied heavily on financial disclosure information amassed by the government watchdog group OpenSecrets.org. Reporters found that U.S. lawmakers are often invested in the industries they oversee in their Senate and House committees.
Take, for example, Rep. Ron Paul. For 20 years the Texas Republican has advocated a return to the gold standard. He is also ranking member of the Financial Services subcommittee concerned with monetary policy, mints and gold medals. In 2008 Paul declared $1.7 million in personal investments in gold and silver companies. Or consider Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security. In 2008 she disclosed $935,000 in investments in electronics and communications firms.
The Post has a nifty interactive graphic showing investments of other key committee leaders, as well as total amounts of personal assets invested in various industry sectors by members of related committees.
Incidentally, the Bee has collected 2008 financial disclosure forms (Statements of Economic Interests) submitted by California legislators and constitutional officers. You can browse these here. 2009 filings are available on the California Fair Political Practices Commission web site.
On June 8, The Bee received a tip that the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency might be planning a new round of significant compensation increases for its employees. If true, the agency -- which is governed by representatives from several local government bodies and receives most of its funding from the state -- would differ sharply from most state-funded agencies, which are freezing and cutting salaries in the face of severe budget shortfalls.
I've tried to get a straight answer about possible plans to boost salary and benefit packages at SAFCA. But the agency's executive director, Stein Buer (pictured at right), did not respond to several inquires on Wednesday. Its external press representative, Barbara Gualco of Gualco Consulting, did not respond to repeated direct questions about whether compensation changes are planned.
Last spring, The Bee reported that Buer had proposed raises of up to 51 percent for nine employees. SAFCA's board then rejected the plan as inappropriate during the economic crisis. But the board approved a 27 percent boost for Buer himself, who now earns $195,000 annually.
The agency was created in 1989 to respond to the threat of serious flooding from the Sacramento and American rivers after large winter storms. It contracts with other agencies and companies to build and improve levees and provide other flood protections. SAFCA's budget for the current fiscal year is $279 million.
The agency's next board meeting, which is open to the public, will be held tomorrow, Thursday, June 17, at 3 p.m., in the City of Sacramento Council Chambers, 915 I St.
- Charles Piller
Public Citizen and the Center for Responsive Politics teamed up to study the "revolving door" of former federal employees who became lobbyists for the financial services industry. The two government watchdog groups determined that since Jan. 2009, at least 1,447 former government officials -- including former Congressional members, Congressional staffers and related federal agency employees -- have gone to work for Wall Street.
Prominent among the 73 former Congress members identified in the study are: "former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.); former Senate Majority Leaders Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.); former House Majority Leaders Dick Armey (R-Texas) and Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.); former Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer (R-Texas); and former Appropriations Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.)." One former California politican appearing on the list: Vic Fazio, a Democrat who represented the Sacramento area in Congress from 1979-1999.
The full CRP/PC study has a complete list of the lobbyists who served in Congress as members or staffers. You'll also find a list of people with the most number of financial services clients. And there's a list of companies employing the most "revolving door" lobbyists. (Citigroup, Inc. is number one with 60.)
-- Pete Basofin
If the American public is going to be the victim of a disastrous deep-water oil leak, it's lucky the responsible party is a deep-pocketed oil company. In case you were wondering where BP managed to find $5.9 billion in profits during the last quarter, look inside your own pocket. This graph shows the most recent energy inflation figures for urban consumers. After a steep drop during the middle of the recession, prices have crept back up.
- Charles Piller
June 8, 2010
Several Sacramento-area banks, hit hard by the financial crisis, continue to struggle. A new report by an independent rating agency shows a handful with severe weaknesses placing them at greater risk of failure because of ongoing problems in the residential and commercial mortgage markets.
Granite Community Bank in Granite Bay, cited in a recent Bee investigation as severely stressed, was among local banks cited by Weiss Ratings, a Florida-based financial analysis firm, in its recent list of the nation's weakest lenders.
At the end of May, Granite became the first area bank seized by federal regulators in the current economic crisis. Its operations were assumed by Tri Counties Bank in Chico. Depositors will have full access to their funds.
Weiss described Granite, among other local banks, as "'vulnerable' to future financial difficulties or even failure, based on our analysis of their capital, asset quality, earnings, liquidity and other factors."
Granite Bancshares Inc., parent company of Granite, reported a $345,000 loss for the first quarter of this year, compared to a loss of $196,000 in the quarter a year before. Loans and deposits plummeted in the same period.
Also among the region's weakest banks, Weiss said, is Community Banks of Northern California. The Tracy-based lender has a Sacramento branch. It's owned by Community Bankshares Inc. in Colorado.
It recently was merged into Community Banks of Colorado to respond to some of the problems cited by rating agencies, said Donald Woods, chief executive of Community Bankshares.
But the Colorado bank faces similar problems: Rating agencies gave it low marks and Bankrate.com ranked it lower than 97 percent of similarly sized banks nationwide.
Gold Country Bank in Marysville - cited in a Bee investigation last year as deeply troubled, and poorly rated by Weiss and other experts - recently was acquired by Sacramento-based Golden Pacific Bancorp, Inc.
-- Charles Piller
The multinational corporation in danger of losing its stranglehold on the lucrative concessions at Sacramento International Airport has increased its political contributions to county supervisors' coffers, records show.
HMSHost, the Maryland-based company owned by multinational corporation Autogrill, is trying to keep a large chunk of the airport's multimillion dollar food and beverage concession business. In the past several months the company has made several notable donations:
- $1,000 to Supervisor Jimmie Yee on March 29
- $1,000 to supervisorial-candidate Phil Serna on March 30
- $3,900 to Supervisor Roger Dickinson's Assembly campaign on March 26.
In addition, a local consultant representing the company, Ted Sheedy, has given $750 to Dickinson's Assembly campaign.
The company also increased its gifts to Airport Director Hardy Acree. Most years the company gives Acree a Christmas gift basket valued at about $75, according to disclosure forms the airport director is required to file annually. In 2009, however, the company gave Acree a $100 gift basket, a $50 holiday gift and a $100 dinner. Sheedy popped for $65 worth of wine that same year, which must have been a slightly nicer vintage than the $40 worth of wine Acree received from SSP, one of the companies competing against HMSHost for the concessions contracts.
As The Bee reported Monday, HMSHost has had a monopoly on the Sacramento Airport concessions for decades. Airport officials, however, want to increase competition in the new terminal -- currently under construction -- and possibly bring in some local businesses.
HMSHost's piece of the pie seemed to be in serious jeopardy last week when Acree and other airport officials proposed as many as six separate contracts including direct contracts with small local restaurants. Supervisors, however, led by Roberta MacGlashan and Roger Dickinson, want officials to come back to the board with a plan to contract with two large concessionaires who would then partner with the local businesses. This is potentially good news for HMSHost and SSP, two major companies in the running for the contracts.
The supervisors will discuss airport concessions at the June 15 board meeting.
-- Robert Lewis
Want to know who funded the hit piece on Sacramento County Sheriff candidate Scott Jones? Curious to learn how much Sacramento County Supervisor Jimmie Yee raised in campaign contributions since mid-March? Hoping to find out about late contributions to Jim Cooper's campaign?
Sacramento County's archaic contribution database was on the fritz last week and candidate filings have been piling up. This means a visitor to the county elections office -- say, a wanna-be-informed voter -- hoping to see the latest filings on the public computer terminal will be out of luck.
County staff are trying to get back on top of the paperwork and scan the documents into the system. So, for example, while you couldn't find contributions to Supervisor Don Nottoli for March 18 through May 17 on the public terminal as of Monday morning, you could scrutinize District 1 candidate Phil Serna's contributions.
Sacramento County is one of the largest counties in the state without electronic campaign contribution filing. The City of Sacramento has such a system, which means voters who want to know who is funding prospective city council candidates can find out quickly and easily from the convenience of their home computer.
In the county, however, supervisors and sheriff's candidates file paper forms that a county worker then scans into a database, which is then only accessible through a special computer terminal at the elections office.
As The Bee wrote in March, county elections officials have continuously asked for an electronic filing system they say would cost $50,000 to install and another $7,500 a year to maintain.
-- Robert Lewis
June 7, 2010
The first installment profiles Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Reid has raised more than $42 million in 30 years. $14 million came from political action committees, of which almost $1 million came from just 10 donor groups. The list is topped by AT&T ($133,650), Laborers' International ($110,450), the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees ($104,000) and the American Banking Association ($102,896). CPI does a nice job of explaining the background, agenda and political influence of each of Reid's top individual and PAC contributors.
Subsequent installments of the series will profile House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader John Boehner.
-- Pete Basofin
June 4, 2010
The salary savings from layoffs and job cuts couldn't make up for the cost of negotiated pay raises in Sacramento County last year. So despite a more than 6 percent drop in personnel from 2008 to 2009, the base salary for all employees combined rose a fraction of a percent.
The county was, however, able to lower gross payroll -- base salary, termination payouts, overtime, etc. combined -- by about 1.4 percent. This appears to have been possible largely by controlling overtime. In 2008, the county paid $28.2 million in overtime pay to workers. That dropped to $15.8 million in 2009. The Sheriff's Department, the source of much of the overtime cost in the county, saw a significant drop. In 2008, the department paid almost $11 million for overtime. That fell to $5.3 million in 2009.
-- Robert Lewis
Insured banks and thrifts in California earned $674 million, compared to a loss of $91 million a year earlier. However, some of the smallest community institutions - those with assets of less than $100 million - are still deeply troubled. Overall, they lost $6 million in the first quarter, compared to a $28 million aggregate loss a year earlier. In the last year, the FDIC reported, 22 of those small lenders have either failed or been absorbed into larger institutions. (Cartoon by Signe Wilkinson)
-- Charles Piller
Banking analysts have long been warning us to expect a bumper crop of failures among small- to medium-sized community and regional banks this year. Many of the big banks that teetered on the edge of collapse had made bad bets on exotic mortgage securities. But most of the smaller banks are feeling the effects of residential mortgage foreclosures (such at the one pictured here) and, increasingly, commercial property loans going bad.
The number of California banks that folded also rose, from four to five. Those included Oakland's Innovative Bank and San Rafael's Tamalpais Bank, both of which closed on April 16.
May 21, 2010
Less known fact: Most of the money raised by candidates comes from outside the area they will represent.
A study released Tuesday by the nonpartisan research group MAPLight,org found that California lawmakers raised 79 percent of campaign funds from outside their districts.
In other words, legislators raised almost four out of every five dollars in campaign funds from outside of where their constituents live.
More than half of the state's lawmakers raised 80 percent or more of their campaign funds from outside their districts. Nineteen lawmakers raised 90 percent or more of their funds from outside their districts. No lawmaker raised more than half of their funds from in-district.
In the greater Sacramento area, MapLight flagged and ranked these legislators by the percentage of contributions they received from donors outside their district:
#18 Assemblywoman Alyson Huber 91 percent #53 Assemblyman Ted Gaines 83 percent #44 Senator Sam Aanestad 85 percent #60 Senator Dave Cox 82 percent
"Not a single legislator in California raised the majority of their campaign funds from in-district, where their voters live," said Daniel Newman, MAPLight.org executive director. "Instead of a voter democracy, we have a donor democracy."
May 19, 2010
May 18, 2010
Roseville's new City Manager Ray Kerridge will be paid an annual salary of $237,300, with an additional $21,357 in deferred compensation, under a contract proposed by the city.
That salary maintains Roseville's top spot among salaries for local city executives, but is well below what it paid its previous city manager.
Former city manager W. Craig Robinson was paid $273,800 annually. Kerridge earned $215,260 annually as Sacramento top executive.
City officials note that while Roseville in considerably smaller in population, the city runs it's own electricity generation and distribution department.
The council is expected to officially hire Kerridge at its May 19 meeting. Under the agreement, Kerridge would start June 17 on a four-year contract. He will not receive a car allowance.
Stung by their experience severing the city's relationship with Robinson, the proposed contract with Kerridge has a termination date and gives the city more options to sever the relationship without a huge payout, officials said.
Robinson's contract also called for $21,084 in deferred compensation, a $750 per month car allowance, no termination date, and required severance payments or 12 months' notice unless the manager were actually convicted of a "felony involving moral turpitude."
The council is also expected to discuss a "golden handshake" early retirement plan for city workers. The May 19 meeting, at city hall 311 Vernon. St., starts at 7 p.m.
May 18, 2010
May 18, 2010
Being a landlord is a real headache sometimes. Just ask the Administrative Office of the Courts, which took over control - and maintenance - of state court facilities from the counties.
The AOC - the staff agency of the state courts' policy -making body, the Judicial Council - took control of the courthouses in 2003 as part of a broader effort to centralize control of the state's judicial branch.
As a result, the office is now responsible for all of the costly little fixes that arise. The AOC approved $27.3 million worth of "Trial Court Facility Modification Costs" for fiscal year 2008-09, of which $7.9 million have been completed. Another $27.3 million in costs were approved for this year, of which $5.3 million had been spent as of April 12, according to a cost breakdown obtained by The Bee from one of the many state judges complaining about AOC spending.
Click here ( Trial Court Facility Mod Costs.pdf ) to see the full list and hunt for your own eyebrow-raisers. It cost $8,021 to remove gum from in front of the Sacramento Superior Court; $20,000 has been approved to replace clocks in the 44 courtrooms in Sacramento; it cost $1,669 to replace "broken feminine dispensers" in the Fresno County Courthouse; $3,141 was spent at the Madera County Superior Court to replace junipers near the front entrance with rose bushes.
"The top priority of the courts should be to stay open," said Dan Goldstein, a San Diego Superior Court judge and one of the directors of the Alliance of California Judges, a group formed to rail against AOC spending and Judicial Council leadership. "We're seeing precious resources being spent on rose bushes and scraping gum off the sidewalks."
It's important to know that the judicial branch has been in a state of turmoil for some time as Chief Justice Ronald George (seen above swearing in the governor) has continued his push to centralize control of the courts, which had operated for decades as virtual fiefdoms. Some judges' discontent bubbled to the surface last summer after the Judicial Council started closing state courts one day a month to save money. This prompted some on the bench to complain that costly construction projects, a massive ongoing computer project and the ballooning AOC staff should be cut before closing courthouse doors.
And, despite the occasional eyebrow raiser, most of the items on the maintenance list actually seem pretty normal.
"As you can see, the vast majority of the items are routine maintenance expenses such as fixing leaky pipes, removing asbestos from workplaces, repairing leaking roofs, etc.," AOC spokesman Philip Carrizosa wrote in an email to The Bee. "To be sure, some of the items were quite expensive such as repairing the roof at the Wiley Manuel Courthouse in Oakland (line 14) which was built in 1982 and whose roof was nearly 10 years past its useful life."-- Robert Lewis