This open government week is a call to arms

March 8, 2011

Richard McKee

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.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

From what Ive seen your well versed in compliance issues SLO Rider, need a good laugh? come to one of the Sanitation District meetings on the first or third of each month and watch the defiance by two of the Board members to consider what Jim Hill requests, one of their own, or the Public’s requests for items to be placed on the agenda for discussion. Pitiful when you hear comments such as “going out to bid for projects would cost us a fortune” Really? how do you know Mr. Nicoll’s its not costing the taxpayers a fortune now in over runs and change orders because of management screw ups. The same people provide engineering,management of projects and administration to the District. Can you say motive and means? Furthermore the likes of any attorney representing a public agency (Seitz) is obligated to act in the public’s best interest, Instead he provides excuses as to why the District needn’t comply with such rules which will guarantee the public’s best bang for its buck. In a document prepared by Seitz he states “John Wallace serves as District Administrator and the Wallace Group serves as the Engineer, odd that the invoices from Wallace indicate Wallace as the District Administrator/Engineer. The Board is aware of its ability at any time to request outside bids in regards to outside services. However because professional services are outside and distinct fro other types of services provided to the District, strict bidding requirements are not required by Government code”. Its also pitiful that Wallace has the balls to charge the public for the time he was required while under investigation by State Water Quality Control Board investigators regarding what turned out to be a Notice of Violation based on illegal activity Wallace was well aware was taking place at the facility in which he managed.

undertow, I’m not sure you have a compliance issue as much as elected representative issues. I understand Director Hill has repetitively worked in the public interest to undertake an administrative review of the Sanitation District which I hear has been refused by the other directors. Correct? The public needs to put pressure on the other directors in that case. The public could also submit Public Records Act requests to the district for specific information. Have there been accusations of Brown Act violations?

Yes, Brown act as well as Public records act violations to the point there was DA intervention of some sort. The Meetings now frequently contain talks of how to better adhere to the laws. Considering Seitz has been the legal representation to the District for 25 years and the Wallace group since who knows when, you’d think by now he’d know the laws, apparently not the case. To me this suggests intentional wrong doing. Some of his directives to District staff from Seitz disallowed the public from accessing documents at the facility in favor of making a written request. Once the written request was submitted Seitz then told those who made inquiries that because they now made a written request they had to wait ten days for a response. Also noted in one of Karen Velie’s articles the creator of the Brown act had this to say regarding the Districts actions.

“That is a flagrant disregard for the California Public Records Act in two respects,” said Terry Francke, general counsel of Californians Aware. “First, the ten-day period is not there to be a cushion, but to provide time if there is serious doubt if the records are public, and in these cases there is no doubt.

“Furthermore, a written request may not be demanded under the California Records Act. There must be no arbitrary delay or obstruction.”

Seitz is a sorry excuse for a attorney in that he specializes in public code and municipality laws. Perhaps its time to circulate a petition requesting his removal from public service followed by a complaint to the American Bar Association Citing his lack of professionalism and attitude towards those who challenge his ignorance.

If there are violations of the CPRA or Brown Act, then the way to combat that is with a demand letter and legal action. If it’s bad enough, get a group together to share the burden. Check the First Amendment Coalition web site and Calaware web site for more information on how to proceed.

Terry Francke didn’t write the 1953 Brown Act, by the way. He is probably the foremost authority, however.

Print, frame and hang in every home and public office.

And make them speak ENGLISH! Not Bureaucratic gobble-do-gook that only government employees can understand.

It should be a state law that ALL government staff reports, contracts and documents have to be clearly stated in language that a sixth grader could understand.

Because what good does public access do if you can’t understand what’s being said or done?

Once a politician was an individual of unmatched ethics, dignity and honor who’s trust by the people was so great they allowed him to represent and speak for them. Now we have in far to many cases a network criminally inclined good old boys hiding behind laws they create and their empires they rule. They lie to us when they speak,tell us were out of order when we expose them and care nothing about the public’s interest, only how much they can steal without getting caught.

Policticians do not “steal”. They INVEST. That is the new politically term for redirecting our taxdollars to projects and earmarks we don’t want. Case in point, where is all of our Social Security money? Invested with best intentions, of course .

An honest government is an oxymoron.

Stop the presses, I even agree with danika. This is probably one topic that most of us can agree on.

IMO there aren’t may politicians that don’t become corrupt.

Nice opinion! Keep government honest. Hurray for the Brown Act, Public Records Act, and Prop 59!

The problem now seems to be compliance. I have seen local gov without public records in defiance of these acts complete with an attitude of sue me.

So, sue them!