The lack of transparency of our state and San Luis Obispo governments

June 7, 2020
T. Keith Gurnee

T. Keith Gurnee


Former mayor of Chicago and former chief of staff to president Obama, Rahm Emanuel once said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” By exploiting the chaos presented by the coronavirus crisis, our state legislature in Sacramento and our own San Luis Obispo City Council are doubling down on that statement.

In Sacramento

Legislators are pushing a flurry of wrongheaded housing bills that are targeting established single-family neighborhoods throughout every city and county in California as the new frontier for high density development. With this legislative session foreshortened by the state’s response to the coronavirus, the hearings on these bills are coming on fast and furious while offering minimal opportunity for the public to weigh in on these bills, understand what they really mean, and who the winners and losers if they become law.

One thing is clear: the sponsors behind this legislation are the real estate development, financial investment, and high-tech high-employment industry lobbies who have a firm grasp on our state Legislature. It’s also clear that many of these bills are the wrong solution to the wrong problem. We don’t have a housing production crisis, we have a housing affordability crisis and these bills are doing too little to address the crux of this issue.

Nonetheless, with restrictions being enforced on public participation during these legislative hearings, the public is prevented from attending the sessions while being limited to making 30 second phone calls on these bills, and the staff reports analyzing new legislation aren’t being published until two days before the hearings.

For example, the State Senate Appropriations Committee will be holding a hearing on all of this legislation on June 9. Yet, the staff reports analyzing the financial impacts of these bills was not available until June 6. How can the public, let alone the legislators themselves, begin to read and comprehend the purpose and consequences–both intended and unintended–of this legislation? So much for transparency!

Sacramento journalist Dan Walters recently wrote in Cal Matters magazine about the attempts of the state legislature to undo Proposition 54, an initiative written in part by our own former State Sen. Sam Blakeslee that was enacted by voters in 2016, that required more transparency in how the Legislature goes about its business. Democratic legislators hated Proposition 54, but the voters enacted it over their objection.

Fast forward to 2020, Assembly Constitutional Amendment 25 has been introduced to gut the transparency provisions enacted by Proposition 54. Between this push and Gavin Newsom’s executive order issued earlier this year to suspend the Brown Act, who knows what’s going on behind closed doors? Transparency is missing in action, replaced by a legislative process that is becoming utterly opaque.

In San Luis Obispo

The same thing is happening right here in SLO Town. Our mayor and City Council are seizing the coronavirus crisis to enact an ordinance against the use of natural gas. This is yet another attempt by the so-called Progressive majority on the San Luis Obispo City Council that would have us live the way they want us to live rather than the way we choose to live.

With the lockdown and the emergency actions taken by the city to prohibit people from attending council meetings, the city had originally scheduled a hearing on this ordinance in mid-July 2020 when much of the lockdown is expected to be lifted.

But what does the city do? Never letting a good crisis go to waste, it announces that the council will hear the ordinance on June 16, 2020 when the restrictions on public attendance at city hearings will still be in place.

So much for open government. The council should hold this hearing in abeyance until the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted so the public can attend this important public hearing. To do anything less would be nothing more than a charade, a sham against transparency in our local governance, and an attempt to limit our freedom of speech.

All this is evidence that our state and local government has clearly lost its way.

T. Keith Gurnee is a member of the Board of Directors of Livable California, a nonprofit organization of more than 10,000 members that advocates for equitable, livable communities, and truly affordable housing in California.

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Single party rule….we will be stuck with democrat party leadership in California until our state election system is overhauled….where is the DOJ?…..

Well said indeed. I appreciate you keeping us informed. If the people of SLO had better clarity, YOU would have been Mayor.

It is because people were informed that they voted for Heidi!sorry but we do not like twisted thruth

I am noticing a similar phenomenon here in Morro Bay.

I am a member of the Morro Bay Public Works Advisory Board (PWAB). The last monthly meeting (May 20) was our first meeting since the Covid shutdown and our first Zoom/virtual meeting. In addition to the overall “newness” of our meeting circumstances, City Manager Scott Collins and City Finance Director, Jennifer Callaway attended the meeting (“were on the Zoom call”), which was unprecedented. They never attended any of the PWAB’s previous monthly meetings. Furthermore, they announced that Finance Director Callaway was now “interim public works director”, supplanting Rob Livick, formerly in charge of the project. Livick is now simply “city engineer” and part of engineering staff in the public works department. Myself and another PWAB board member, Christian Eriendson, questioned the newly engaged city planner and finance director as to why their sudden and unannounced taking over of project oversight. City Manager Collins’ justification was a melange of covid restrictions and “precautionary measures” in this time of tight public budgets, as I recall.

This particular meeting was the first one since construction began on, what has become, a controversial public works project: the $125 million Water Reclamation Facility (WRF). This project, and associated rate-increase in water-sewer bills, has divided this community (but not in a too polarized way, because the opponents are a small but vocal minority galvanized and made persistent by the larger issue of California, which you address, affordability).

During this particular meeting in May, with the sudden intervention by the City Manager and his Finance Director, the main issue on the agenda for the Advisory Board that night to discuss was a $5 million cost over-run on the WRF project coming from the development-construction contractors. This cost over-run comes only 6 weeks after breaking ground on the construction! At this rate, the project will double in cost when it finishes two years hence.

Torrey Byles

Principal Economist, Granada Research

Morro Bay

How about that Torrey, there seemed to be a little matter of a fault in the earth at the top of the project that slipped, poor planning on the engineering company that was hired for this, now is the time to put it back like it was and rebuild the plant where its at, not only that but we now have to look at that blight as we drive by on hwy one, seems to me some one at one of those planning meetings whined about seeing the existing plant from hwy I don’t see that one being a problem as you only see it for a second and it doesn’t jump out at you like this new one does. I’ll bet the old folks home is gonna love it too when the wind blows the odor right to them as its been blowing the last couple days.