This open government week is a call to arms
March 8, 2011
Opinion By Richard P. McKee
Our Founding Fathers, revered for their courage and determination, knew far too well the nation they were creating was only an experiment; that persistence lay ahead if the people’s government was to survive. They openly worried that too much power placed in too few hands might wrest freedom and control away, reverting back to what they fought so hard to overcome. Today, the American people have come face-to-face with this challenge, and California presents an excellent example.
Whether you scan local news or statewide articles, almost daily there are stories of public corruption scandals, bribery, extortion, and nepotism committed by those we elect and appoint to do the people’s business. But these outrages never could have happened if the electorate had known about these deals before they occurred. Public corruption is facilitated by secrecy; backroom deals with a quid pro quo.
Almost 60 years ago, the California Legislature observed, “Legislative and administrative groups and officials through devious ways are depriving us, the public, of our inalienable right to be present and to be heard at all deliberations of governmental bodies.” The result of that observation was the enactment of the Ralph M. Brown Act, California’s open meetings law.
Nevertheless, today the Legislature could make the same observation. Just look to the revelations of fraud and corruption in the cities of Bell, Vernon, South Gate, Bell Gardens, Carson, Lynwood, Colton, and the list goes on and on. In every case the wrongdoing was well-supported by a large dose of secrecy.
In 1968 the Legislature followed up with the Public Records Act to guarantee “access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business.” Then in 2004, Proposition 59 made these open government laws constitutional protections.
Yet, despite these assurances, public officials continue to raid local treasuries like kids at a candy barrel.
One of our recent public records compliance audits of school districts, colleges, and universities revealed administrators’ routine use of limousine services, the fanciest hotels, $12,000/year vehicle reimbursements, tens-of-thousands in housing allowances, and contracts with automatic salary escalators of as much as $75,000 a year.
All of these “gifts” were given by our elected school boards and university regents at meetings open to the public. However, the vast majority of the time, no member of the public made even a single comment before their approval. Often, that’s because no one knew of the contract or reimbursement before it was approved.
It is reasonable to assume that most of us, with annual household incomes near California’s median of $60,000, might have wished to question the wisdom of giving our school district superintendent $300,000 annually, or to providing the president of our local community college a $70,000 annual bonus, or to
reimbursing a university president’s $450 a night stays at one of the most expensive hotels in Washington, DC, along with $2,200 in airfare for the trip. How about the city managers and city attorneys making over $500,000 a year, well more than the President of the United States?
The sad news is that this all happens because “we the people” don’t pay any attention; a willful ignorance amply facilitated by news media that fail to keep us informed. The usual practice is for the electorate to vote for those telling us what we want to hear, whether it’s for or against an incoming WalMart, funding for parks, promoting public transportation, refurbishing schools, or some other hot topic; then we return to ignoring local government as soon as we leave the polling place.
And this problem has been made more difficult by local government’s eagerness to create more and more public agencies. What do you know of your local sanitation district, or the community service, recreation, vector control, flood, water, airport, harbor, irrigation, public transportation, hospital, waste management, utilities, or cemetery districts? How about your council of governments, air quality management, or local agency formation commission?
Every one of these public boards and commissions employs staff and sets their compensation. But it’s not only the salaries and obvious benefits, it’s the pensions—and boy are they something!
There are public employees who, at age 50, can retire with a guarantee of 90 percent of their pay and full health benefits for the rest of their lives; all obtained without ever having paid anything for these while they were working. That’s right, they contributed not a cent. All was covertly promised to be paid for by their city. Imagine working for 30 years, and then the public pays you 90 percent of your salary for, on average, the next 35 years. And we wonder why government, both local and state, is going broke.
So what’s the answer? Well for starts, it is demanding government give us much more information without us having to ask for it. Publication of all proposed employment and union contracts, with ample lead time for comment before they are voted upon. Wider distribution of meeting agendas and backup information with a system for newspapers and the public to request these be provided to them automatically, by e-mail, at the same time they are made available to council and board members. And a public demand that our representatives stop hiding behind closed sessions. None should be allowed for any purpose without early notice and a complete explanation of the issues to be discussed, with an invitation for the public to comment before they are held.
Open government is not enough. We must demand that government not only announce, but inform— educate the public on the issues important to them, ask for input, and only then take action.
We must stop the problems before they become incurable. We do this by holding our public officials accountable for keeping us well-informed.
As James Madison, the father of our Constitution, warned, “A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.”
Richard P. McKee is vice president for open government compliance at Californians Aware, a non-profit coalition of public officials, news media, and concerned citizens, whose mission is to support and defend the principals of open government.