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Mayor Kevin Johnson’s use of private/public partnerships raises questions about transparency

Mayor Kevin Johnson

Sacramento County Democratic Party chairwoman Kerri Asbury’s call for a city probe into the use of office space in City Hall by nonprofits run by Mayor Kevin Johnson started a predictable row between the two, but it also raised important questions about the role these nonprofits play in public policy and the degree to which they are subject to the same type of transparency and accountability we expect from government.

That, at least, was my takeaway after talking to Sacramento Bee reporter Ryan Lillis (@Ryan_Lillis) and City Councilman Steve Cohn in Wednesday’s Sac Press Live chat.

The mayor has organized a group of nonprofits to focus on areas he has designated as priorities, with Think Big, a nonprofit focused on the search for a downtown arena and promoting downtown development, being the most visible example. Others include Greenwise, which focuses on developing clean technology, and For Arts’ Sake, a nonprofit with a mission to "strengthen and celebrate Sacramento’s creative industries."

As Lillis explained, these nonprofits used to operate under the city’s Gifts to Share program, which meant they were subject to Freedom of Information Act requests. However, the mayor’s office has since moved them under the umbrella of a new organization, the Sacramento Public Policy Foundation, which is a private entity and therefore not subject to the same public-records laws.

"Frankly, that’s the only public documents that they have to divulge: their tax forms, how much money they brought in and list of directors," Lillis said.

In the same chat, City Councilman Steve Cohn suggested that the rise of these nonprofits was something that needed a closer look from the city.

"Think Big, or some of the other nonprofits that the mayor oversees really does raise another level of policy really, or at least an issue to really look at," Cohn said. "What’s the appropriate role for the City Hall or city facilities to play vis-à-vis these nonprofits?"

I told Cohn that he might want to consider making these nonprofit organizations subject to public-records requests – though I have to admit I’m not sure how exactly that could happen. Cohn seemed open to the idea however, saying, "That might be a good start."

Here’s a video with a few highlights from the chat, in which Lillis goes into more detail:

The full conversation can be viewed on our YouTube channel. Sac Press Live chats are every Wednesday at noon on SacramentoPress.com.

Update: Steven Maviglio, a former campaign manager for the mayor and one of his most voracious defenders and supporters, has joined the conversation below this article. He details the tax forms that nonprofits do have to disclose and adds context about stafing levels in the mayor’s office. His full comment:

"It’s difficult to take stories like this seriously when they only include one perspective. Nonprofits of all stripes aren’t subject to the same rules as governments. For example, consumerwatchdog.org spent more than $200,000 into a failed ballot measure and didn’t have to disclose who gave them a dime of that money. Nonprofits file Form 990s with the IRS that list significant amounts of financial info, staffing info, salaries, and other data. Those forms are filed with the California Attorney Generals Office. It’s important to note — which this article didn’t — that these nonprofits are all fully complying with the laws they are requited to do.

It also would be helpful to point out that the Mayor has just four employees in his office. Or to mention there are empty floors at City Hall. The interns and community members volunteering for these initiatives are doing good things for the community, whether it’s encouraging reading for young children, promoting healthy eating, attracting green businesses to Sacramento."

You can my reply below.

As another commenter pointed out, there are lots of unanswered questions here. This is a topic we’ll be turning back to in future chats, and any input, research or questions our readers post in the conversation below will help guide us as we determine how to best tackle the issue at Sac Press .

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