Open Government Requires More Sunshine
The city of Bell pay scandal highlighted serious flaws in California’s open-government laws. Now a proposed constitutional change wants the people to guarantee more sunshine to the Golden State. That’s how government openness was achieved in the past, through action by citizens and news organizations.
After World War II, it was common for local California governments to avoid public scrutiny by conducting official business in closed informal “workshops” and “study sessions.” This prompted San Francisco Chronicle reporter Mike Harris to write a 10-part series in the early 1950s about local government bodies making decisions in secret. The series raised public awareness and prompted legislative action.
Assemblyman Ralph M. Brown, a Modesto Democrat, conducted investigations in response to the Chronicle series. He introduced legislation, which was endorsed by The Bee in October 1952: “Instances are many in which officials have contrived, deliberately and shamefully, to operate in a vacuum of secrecy.”
The California Legislature passed the Brown Act in 1953, signed by Gov. Earl Warren. The act ensures that the public can attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies, with certain exceptions.
The Brown Act was followed in 1967 by the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act, which mandates open meetings for state agencies, and in 1973 by the Grunsky-Burton Open Meeting Act that applies to the state legislative branch. Both bills were signed by Gov. Ronald Reagan.
It’s no accident that of the three open-meetings laws, the Legislature subjected itself to transparency last – and it created the shortest of the three laws to apply to itself.
In November 2004, 83 percent of California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 59, which gives constitutional protection to the objectives embodied in the state’s transparency acts.
It states: “The meetings of public bodies and the writings of public officials and agencies shall be open to public scrutiny.” The measure establishes the “public’s right to know” what their government is doing.
Today, unfortunately, California ranks a mediocre 17th out of 50 states for its open-records laws and a dismal 45th for its open-meetings laws, according to the recent BGA-Alper Integrity Index. Once a national leader in open government, California now receives an “F” for its open-records laws from the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Better Government Association.
The 1968 California Public Records Act now contains nearly 40 pages listing records not required to be disclosed. California’s transparency laws contain too many exemptions and loopholes and too few teeth to ensure compliance. Reform is long overdue.
Sponsored by the California Newspaper Publishers Association and introduced by state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, Senate Constitutional Amendment 7, if approved by two-thirds of the Legislature, would place before voters at the next statewide ballot a measure stating: “Each public body shall provide public notice of its meetings and shall publicly disclose any action taken” in open or closed sessions.
The proposed amendment would create a uniform statewide requirement that public bodies perform these vital activities and pay for them, which relieves the state of funding the activities for local public agencies as a mandate and guarantees these rights for the public.
SCA 7 could be worded stronger but it is worthy of public support. It could serve as a blueprint for more transparency reforms California needs such as requiring state and local governments to disclose on the Web the salaries and benefits for all government employees as a matter of course, without forcing citizens to ask for the information through a Public Records Act request.
Such affirmative disclosure is the latest trend in government transparency. The people and private sector must lead the way because history confirms politicians won’t.