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City puts county on hook for homeless plan
By R.E. Graswich
In a sure sign the homeless disaster has moved from tragedy to farce, Mayor Darrell Steinberg and the City Council want to fix the mess with political games.
This is the story of Measure O on the November ballot. Known as the “Emergency Shelter and Enforcement Act,” it has no connection with emergencies or enforcement. Even the word “act” is a lie.
If, for some reason, voters approve Measure O, nothing will happen. Or maybe something might, one day. But that’s up to the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors.
The act is a mirage, suspended unless the county rescues the city from the homeless abyss. Which is no way to run a city.
The protagonists in our drama are the Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and a political operative name Dan Conway. Angered by Steinberg’s failure to slow the growth of tent cities, street drug markets, robberies, burglaries, fires and mayhem associated with homeless people, the chamber and Conway took a DIY approach.
They wrote a ballot measure with two requirements. One, the city must produce a certain number of homeless shelters. Two, the city must move homeless people into those shelters. Failure in either task would expose the city to endless legal calamity.
Next, the chamber and Conway sidestepped the easy way to get the plan before voters, a method that simply requires five votes from the City Council. Instead, they fanned out and gathered signatures for a ballot initiative.
They presented their proposal as a “grassroots” effort unaffiliated with the incompetents at City Hall. Petitions began to circulate from Pocket to Natomas.
Terrified the chamber and Conway might get enough signatures to place their initiative on the ballot, the mayor and his colleagues retreated in fear.
The prospect of unknown legal liabilities, hundreds of new shelters and the mandated removal of tents from Broadway, Alhambra and other sidewalks made the City Council seek a peace treaty.
Both sides were motivated to compromise. Gathering signatures is expensive. But the chamber and Conway didn’t trust Steinberg. They agreed to negotiate only with City Manager Howard Chan. They told the mayor to get lost.
An agreement was reached. The City Council would place the “Emergency Shelter” plan on the ballot, but the final version would cut the number of shelters and required time to create them, among other details.
Everyone was satisfied. Or so it seemed.
Months passed. The deadline for November ballot measures approached. All was quiet. But surprise! Steinberg never forgot the bum’s rush he received from the chamber and Conway.
The mayor has many shortcomings—among them an inability to keep his promises or complete any sort of significant project.
But Steinberg is a genius of backroom politics, especially when vengeance is involved. He knows which gears at City Hall are vulnerable to sand. He carries a bucket of sand.
As the window on November initiatives closed, Steinberg announced he would ask the City Council to yank the “Emergency Shelter” proposal from the ballot. It was unfeasible, he said, unless the County Board of Supervisors contributed millions of dollars for mental health and addiction support.
Pretending to be reasonable, Steinberg let the chamber and Conway salvage their pride. The initiative could stay, but a disclaimer would be added, saying Measure O would not take effect without support from Sacramento County.
What Steinberg knew was this: The city has tried for decades to get the county to pay for city homeless services. And this: The county will never yield control over its social service and mental health resources.
Agreements on homelessness between the city and county are always deceptive. In the end, nothing changes.
When the chamber and Conway regained consciousness, they held a press conference and complained about Steinberg’s poor sportsmanship. They said Measure O was “gutted.”
As for Steinberg, he smugly suggested the Chamber of Commerce and Dan Conway got what they deserved.
“They made a leverage play,” he shrugged.
Once again, the big losers are city residents. They can waste a vote on Measure O. Or they can pray for a mayor and City Council that actually fix things.
R.E. Graswich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.