SN&R's owner chimes in on the K.J. lawsuit

Jeff vonKaenel

Strong mayor. Weak mayor. Silly mayor.

We have had a bizarre week at SN&R, ever since learning that the mayor planned to take us to court. There’s been national coverage, including USA Today and the Los Angeles Times. Our website crashed from too much traffic. On Wednesday evening there were three local TV station vans parked outside our office. And even The Sacramento Bee, which usually ignores our existence, mentioned our name.

This all came from a simple public-records request, followed by Mayor Kevin Johnson’s nutty reaction. He actually threatened to sue a newspaper for filing a public-records request.

Now, maybe there has been another public official who has threatened to sue a newspaper for filing a public-records request—but, if so, I have never heard of it. It was certainly a bold move. And the mayor likes to be bold. But perhaps he should have looked before he leapt.

According to the machine at Raley’s that measures your blood pressure, I have low blood pressure. But mention the word “lawsuit” and it instantly goes up. But although our newspapers regularly go after people and institutions with a lot of money and power, SN&R has, over the years, had a comparatively small legal bill.

But expensive lawsuits are like tuberculosis: Just because you have not had it yet does not mean it cannot kill you. The problem with lawsuits, from my experience, is the cost. Lawsuits routinely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. What I fear even more than losing a lawsuit is losing our company to pay the legal fees from a lawsuit.

Nevertheless, when I heard that the mayor had threatened us with a lawsuit, I assumed he was just trying to intimidate us.

But then I heard that the Bee, which had also filed a public-records request, had backed down. Frankly, I was concerned. Why would the Bee, with a much larger checkbook than SN&R, roll over? Did they know something that I did not? (It’s worth noting that, although the lawsuit claimed that The Sacramento Bee backed down, the Bee disputes this.)

Anyway, suddenly we were alone.

But we believed that the mayor’s case had no merit. So we did not back down. And now, this case has created a media frenzy, and brought more attention to the very issue that the mayor probably hoped would go away.

Many more people have now become aware that the mayor is using city resources for non-city projects, including his controversial activities with the National Conference of Black Mayors.

Yes, the mayor was bold. But the mayor was also silly.

And consider this: If the strong-mayor initiative Measure L had passed last year, the mayor would have been able to fire or put pressure on the city staff who will now make the decision about his emails.

Luckily for Sacramento, the strong-mayor initiative did not pass. Which is good. Because a strong and silly mayor is not a good idea.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.