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California Earns B- for Openness, D- for Access

Posted: Mar 22, 2012

How does California score when it comes to transparency and political corruption? According to a new study released earlier this week ranking states in terms of their political openness the answer is: not bad at all. When it comes to access to public information, the picture is less rosy.

The Golden State ranked fourth on the “Corruption Risk Report Card,” earning a B- overall. The nationwide State Integrity Investigation included several categories and looks to “expose practices that undermine trust in state capitols.”  Good news for government watchdogs and former elected officials alike.

The state received a D-, however, for access to public information, a grade that surprised a few and one most agree must improve soon.

Carol Shull was one of a number of journalists brought on to help with the investigation. Examining California’s corruption risk, she noted that while laws like the 1968 California Public Records Act, designed to provide greater access to information from public agencies, work well on paper, “they can be administered by the departments very differently.”

The head of San Francisco’s Sunshine Ordinance Task Force (SOTF), Hope Johnson, agrees. Describing California’s D- in public access to information as a “relatively legitimate” grade, she echoed Shull’s concerns. “We have some good public records laws in California, but the main issue is enforcement, and it’s also dependent on leadership”

She also stressed that public awareness is an equally significant factor.

“A lot of people don’t know what their rights are, and some people also just don’t see the relevance. They ask, ‘Okay, well how does this apply to me?’ [Accessing public information] isn’t that exciting, but it’s very difficult when you’re in the position and need it. It’s even harder for journalists working under deadlines who need the information in a timely manner,” she explained.

“If nobody is worried about it [the process], there will be a delay in turning over the requested information until it’s not useful,” she said, adding that in some instances the public has taken legal action against government agencies to obtain requested documents that should have already been available.

“It ends up costing tax payers a lot of money,” said Johnson.

A Steep Price to Pay

Johnson cited a case heard in October of 2010 by the SOTF, which advises the city’s board of supervisors on matters of open government.

According to minutes from the hearing, an employee with a local public affairs agency submitted a request in June of 2010 for records pertaining to then District Attorney Kamala Harris. The employee, Johnson notes, received only two of the 11 documents and even those did not come until September, after a court battle that cost the city some $7500 in legal fees.

Daniel Newman, executive director of MapLight, a Berkeley, Calif. based nonprofit research organization that tracks campaign financing, told New America Media that the “lack of an agency enforcing the public records act is a detriment” to open government, but added that he would rank California “at about a C, simply because there is a right of access available and a right to collect attorney’s fees [if the requestor is successful in taking legal action],” he said.

In December of 2008, MapLight and The First Amendment Coalition (FAC) filed a lawsuit against the Office of Legislative Counsel of California under the California Public Records Act to obtain electronic database records of how state lawmakers vote, which was denied upon request in July of that same year. MapLight and FAC won public access to the database in a June 2009 settlement.

The Need For Improvement

Shull pointed out that making people go to court to appeal decisions denying them access to public information was a factor in giving California such a poor grade. “We were expecting states to have set up a separate commission or organization to review those requests,” she said.

The ease with which the public can get access to information that is legally available to them is another challenge that contributed to California’s low grade.

Most top level elected and appointed officials must file statements of economic interest -- disclosing gifts they receive, as well as stocks and investments they hold, income earned that is not from the state, and property they own -- with the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC). However, other state, city, and county officials, such as city managers or planning commission directors, file those statements locally.

Currently there is no way to consolidate all of that information and analyze whether there are interest groups involved in activities throughout the state. Ann Ravel, Chair of the FPPC, says the group must have access to copies of all statements of economic interest, in order to increase transparency and help the public get access to information.

“People need to know that information so that they know whether their public officials are making decisions in their best interest,” she said.

Johnson with the SOTF noted the State of California could benefit from a statewide ordinance or an administrative section of the court reinforcing rights to accessing all public records, thereby reducing violations of open government. But she added it would need to be something “not in the purview of politicians.”

Assemblyman Warren T. Furutani (D-South Los Angeles County), a strong advocate for ensuring communities are politically engaged and adequately informed, especially regarding bilingual services, echoed the concerns of good government advocates.

“There is a gap between the policies and practices,” he said. And while acknowledging that budget cuts and subsequent understaffing are valid concerns, Furutani stressed “this is not an excuse for not complying.”

The assemblymember pointed to a November, 2010 audit of California’s Dymally-Alatorre Bilingual Services Act, which requires that all state agencies translate materials into any language spoken by 5 percent or more of those served and hire bilingual staff. The audit, he said, found that eight of the 10 state agencies audited did not have procedures in place to update their bilingual services to reflect the changing needs of their clients.

Still, despite the shortcomings, laws such as the Bilingual Services Act are cause for optimism, says Furutani.

“People want to know how their dollar is being spent, and I think that’s a good movement.”

Suzanne Manneh also serves on San Francisco’s Sunshine Ordinance Task Force Committee

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