Steve Cohn responds to editorial

A recent editorial in the Sacramento Bee called out the actions of City leaders regarding the Natomas permit scandal. Specifically, the editorial calls out the actions of Mayor Kevin Johnson, Councilmember Steve Cohn, and Councilmember Lauren Hammond.

Yesterday, Councilmember Cohn issued a response to the editorial:

The Bee’s 10/29/09 editorial got it half right in praising the City utility employee whistleblower who told City management about the Natomas permit scandal, while chastising City Council members for objecting to the subsequent leak of a confidential City Attorney memo.

I share the Bee’s commendation of the utility department whistleblower. Thanks to this courageous public servant, the City Attorney and City Manager were already well under way with an internal investigation and external investigation in cooperation with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

But the Bee is wrong to cast aspersions on Councilmember Hammond and me for voicing concerns over another Councilmember’s office secretly giving the Bee a copy of the City Attorney’s confidential memo to the Council before some Councilmembers even knew of its existence, let alone had a chance to read it. I remain outraged both by the actions of those City employees who betrayed the public trust by illegally issuing permits and waiving fees, as well as those officials who betrayed the trust and confidence among the Councilmembers and the City Attorney. This is the third time a confidential City Attorney memo has been leaked to the press in the past few months, and the political pattern is obvious.

As the author of the city’s campaign reform ordinances and the Chair of the City Council’s Audit Committee, whose meetings are noticed in advance and completely open to the public, I am committed to open and public government and to accountability to the public we serve. But even the most ardent advocate of openness cannot reasonably argue that all personnel investigations take place in public from beginning to end. There is a need for some communications, particularly at the investigative stage, to be confidential. Otherwise, the City Attorney might just as well post her confidential memos and closed session discussions on the Internet. As you can imagine, the resulting sanitized communications would be much less candid and of little value.

I’m not talking about condoning the clandestine practices that went on in post-911 Washington. But there were many ways to let the press and the public know about the Natomas issue without violating the Brown Act, the attorney-client privilege, or the personnel rights of individual employees under investigation. If the City Attorney memo revealed a cover up or failure to investigate the Natomas fiasco, that would be a different story. But, in fact, the City Attorney and City Manager were already proceeding with an independent investigation, and the City Council has started a more systematic audit of the entire building permit process under the direction of the Audit committee that I chair. Based on the outcome of this investigation and audit, we will let the chips fall as they may to punish those who violated the law and to make systemic changes necessary to prevent their recurrence.

Steve Cohn
City Councilman, City of Sacramento, District 3

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