KJ favors a strong mayor, weak press

Mayor Kevin Johnson’s push for a strong-mayor regime got the town hall treatment tonight in downtown Sacramento.

The event took place at SEIU 1000’s union hall at 1325 S Street. There was what looked to be a decent spread, judging by the paper plates stacked with grub carried outside. And the town hall featured a “panel of experts” representing “both sides” of the strong mayor debate, headlined by KJ and former Mayor Heather Fargo.

But I can’t tell you much more than that. Because, as a member of the press, I was denied access. To a public event.

Let me stress that part again: The town hall. Was. A public. Event.

When a white-haired union rep with a clipboard heard that I was a reporter, he said, “Oh, you can’t go in there. This isn’t open to the press.”

“But it’s a public event, right?” I said. “How does that work?”

He looked uncertain. “Hold on, let me find out,” he said.

It was then that I noticed Sacramento Bee reporter Ryan Lillis was standing behind me. We both arrived around the same time, a few minutes into the reception portion of the evening, before the town hall got going. There was still room for people inside–union members, interested residents, bigwig politicians and Johnson’s mother–just not for two reporters.

A heavyset man with dark hair, also with SEIU 1000, appeared and repeated what the earlier one had said. This time, Lillis objected. So the second man went to get someone else.

By this time, a group of people waiting to enter started asking us what the deal was. They were equal parts sympathetic and bemused. Even Councilman Steve Hansen stopped outside to empathize before making his way to another engagement. He jokingly offered his city council ID, but Lillis is too thin wiry and I way too short to make such a ruse work.

The union’s communications director came out and told Lillis and I that the event was open to the public, yet closed to the press. This was a paradox, we explained. For all those folks who are working or busy or otherwise unable to attend tonight’s town hall, the press is the public’s access to this event.

As politely as she could, the communications director declined to go on the record to tell us the reasons for this decision, but it became apparent that Johnson’s campaign was behind it. It evidently wasn’t the union’s call–they’re were just hosting the thing–and it wasn’t the decision of Fargo or the other panelists, according to SN&R columnist Cosmo Garvin, who got inside the event by being early.

“We expected press until we were told yesterday press wouldn’t be allowed,” Fargo told Garvin.

I texted Joshua Wood, head of the mayor’s pro-arena coalition The4000.

“Dude can you let me and Ryan Lillis inside? The PIO says we can if you say it’s cool.”

A couple minutes later, Wood texted back: “Sorry bro”

By this time, Lillis had taken to Twitter to explain our predicament:

Because Lillis has a shit-ton more followers than I do, this got out to its intended audience, namely those inside the building. One industrious citizen, Lisa Ouellette, began live-tweeting the town hall, and doing an ace job of picking apart Johnson’s flim-flam justifications for the power grab with 140-character darts: 


It also seems like the audience had some great questions, asking the mayor “what’s so broken that needs fixing” and whether the mayor’s ability to fire people will include “due process” protections. Would’ve loved to hear Johnson’s answers.

I did have one question for him myself, which I posted to Twitter:

I’m not holding my breath for a reply.

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