Eying the Watchdog A CHALLENGE TO CITY HALL CHALLENGERS
n open secret at Sacramento City Hall—or any room where elected officials gather to cast votes—is how little weight is given to public comments. From a policy standpoint, those heartfelt remarks made by common citizens each Tuesday night at city council meetings mean nothing. The board listens politely, then ratifies decisions that were predetermined hours if not weeks prior. Councilmembers view public commentary as a necessary evil, required by law and tradition but secondary to the serious business of orchestrating the city’s course. Prominent within the category of public commentators is a group called Eye on Sacramento. For years, the Eye and its members—a group of people who could comfortably fit around a dinner table—have been showing up at City Hall, demanding their two minutes and weighing in on substantive issues under consideration by the council. The Eye’s sweet spot is tax money and the squandering of same. The Eye has discovered significant waste. When I began working at City Hall as special assistant to Mayor Kevin Johnson in 2009, nobody took the Eye seriously. Part of my job was to attend council meetings and text the mayor about what was going on in the gallery. I got to know City Hall regulars, folks who showed up every
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Susan Foster, Lisa Garcia, Craig Powell, Greg Thompson and Anna Robertson. week. Among them was Craig Powell, the Eye’s indefatigable leader. I enjoyed listening as Powell and his friends respectfully challenged the council on wasteful practices in public works and other departments. Powell was trained as an attorney, and while he doesn’t practice law, he has perfected a soothing, logical delivery worthy of courtroom summations. He’s persuasive and fun to watch. Later, working with the crew at Inside Publications, where Powell writes a column, I got to know him better. While I don’t always agree with Powell and Eye on Sacramento,
I admire the group’s tenacity and purpose. They are a public asset. The Eye rummages through City Hall budgets and staff reports, prepares dissenting arguments and posts conclusions on the web. Whistleblowers are treasured. The Eye sends out press releases to draw attention to itself and keep city staff and councilmembers accountable. In recent years, local TV stations and The Bee began to quote directly from the Eye’s reports. This would not have happened a decade ago, when news organizations had larger and more robust staffs. Back then, the Eye was a tip sheet at best.
These days, it’s easier for shortstaffed media to pick up the Eye’s reports and turn them around as completed stories, using sentences that say, “According to a report from the watchdog group Eye on Sacramento ...” This is bad news for City Hall. Suddenly, city government has a few presumptive, determined citizens who transcend the open-mic atmosphere at Tuesday-night council meetings and vault ahead with credibility certified by traditional media. The Eye became a real watchdog once local media realized they could WATCHDOG page 23