Ballot measures a touchy political issue in Sacramento

From the Sacramento Bee - August 10, 2012

One local public relations professional suggested it's all about politics. "Elected officials, particularly members of the City Council who are ambitious and are not inclined to spend the rest of their careers sitting on the City Council dais, know how to read the tea leaves," said Sacramento public relations specialist Doug Elmets. "They don't want to be saddled with a losing proposition."

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and some members of the City Council have expressed strong opinions about raising the city sales tax and creating a 15-person commission to overhaul the city charter.

They just won't sign their names to those opinions.

Nearly every council member who agreed to write ballot arguments for city measures going before voters in November either missed the deadline to file their arguments or wound up leaving the task to residents and other city officials.

So what does this lack of participation by elected officials say about the ballot measures?

One local public relations professional suggested it's all about politics. "Elected officials, particularly members of the City Council who are ambitious and are not inclined to spend the rest of their careers sitting on the City Council dais, know how to read the tea leaves," said Sacramento public relations specialist Doug Elmets. "They don't want to be saddled with a losing proposition."

Of all the names that won't be appearing on ballot arguments that arrive in mailboxes this fall, it was the mayor's absence from the anti-tax argument that created the most buzz around City Hall this week.

Johnson – known for his pro-business, anti-tax stance – had volunteered last month to write the statement opposing a half-percentage-point increase in the city sales tax. But his aides didn't get that statement to the city clerk before Wednesday's deadline.

It's unclear whether that statement was even written. The mayor was out of town Thursday and not available for comment. His office declined comment on the matter.

None of the three council members who had agreed to sign their names to the supporting argument for the tax measure did so either. They left that to Police Chief Rick Braziel, Fire Chief Ray Jones, restaurateur Randall Selland, city parks commissioner Araceli Mercado and Land Park activist Mark Abrahams.

Council members Darrell Fong, Steve Cohn and Kevin McCarty had volunteered to author and sign the argument. Like most of their colleagues, those three have been vocal supporters of the tax hike, which would generate an estimated $28 million annually for the city budget.

Cohn said the group thought it would be more persuasive to have community leaders place their names on the statement.

"The first step to any initiative is to build a coalition," said Andrew Acosta, a political consultant advising the yes campaign. "Who best to lead that charge when it comes to police and fire protection than the police chief and fire chief, who are on the front lines?"

And then there's the charter commission. McCarty was the architect of a plan to ask voters to create an elected body of 15 Sacramento residents. If voters approve, the group will take two years exploring possible changes to the way the city is governed.

The list of candidates for the panel includes some heavy hitters in local politics, including former Mayor Heather Fargo. Another former mayor, Anne Rudin, signed her name to the supporting ballot argument.

As for McCarty, his name won't appear in the ballot guide. Asked about his absence, he said, "This isn't about politicians; it's about average citizens. I fully support the measure. I have nothing to hide. Am I backing away from it? No."

Councilwoman Angelique Ashby did sign her name – to the opposition argument. Ashby calls out her council colleagues in that statement, criticizing them for attempting to create "a new bureaucracy with no accountability, no oversight, no transparency, and no requirement for an outcome."

Roger Niello, president of the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, also signed the opposition argument.

Niello was out of town Thursday and not available for comment. Dennis Rogers, the chamber's senior vice president of public policy and economic development, said the chamber "wouldn't have agreed to participate in the process and then not put our names on (the argument)."

"The puzzling part isn't necessarily whether the proponents are fully committed," he said. "The puzzling part is why this is on the ballot."


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