During National Sunshine Week, the public continues to be outraged by the lavish salaries taken by former city officials in Bell.
Fortunately, the city can teach important lessons on how to improve California’s transparency laws.
The Bell scandal came to light using the 1968 California Public Records Act (CPRA), which mandates disclosure of government records to the public, on request, unless there is a specific reason not to do so. Unfortunately, the CPRA doesn’t work well for ordinary Californians.
One Los Angeles Times reporter who broke the Bell story, Jeff Gottlieb, told CalWatchdog he kept track of his records request with Bell officials by calling every day. When it appeared that he was being stonewalled, he said: “Look, we don’t want to sue you, but trust me, we will. And we will ask the judge to have you pay our legal expenses under the law.”
That got the attention of Bell officials, who handed over their pay records. The problem is most citizens don’t have the time or money to sue the government. When stonewalled, they just walk away.
State lawmakers should create a faster, competitive non-judicial administrative review process by allowing an individual who alleges nondisclosure of a public record to appeal to the agency head or a state ombudsman with authority to render administrative rulings on complaints. Virginia has an ideal model.
Currently, the only recourse is to file a lawsuit in superior court, which tends to be slow and costly compared to a first-tier administrative remedy. Public agencies will be more likely to comply with the law when individuals can appeal decisions faster and at lower cost.
California ranks a mediocre 17th for its open-records laws in the BGA-Alper Integrity Index. California does not punish violations of public-records laws, leading the Better Government Association to conclude California lacks “a serious commitment to the policy underlying an open-records act.” State lawmakers need to establish criminal and civil penalties for violations. This will give teeth to the CPRA and encourage compliance.
Lawmakers should also require more “affirmative disclosure” – releasing certain information to the public before a request is made. An ideal affirmative disclosure would be a legislative requirement to post on a searchable website the salaries, benefits, business expenditures, and gifts for all public employees in California.
As Bell shows, public pay is the public’s business but, unfortunately, darkness has crept into the Golden State’s sunshine laws over time. The CPRA now contains nearly 40 pages listing records not required to be disclosed.
Gov. Brown should create a commission to review all exemptions to the open-records and open-meetings requirements and recommend which exemptions should be abolished or narrowed. This “sunset” commission would be similar to the federal military base closure commission created after the end of the cold war.