Dan Walters: California's watchdogs could be chained up

03/22/2013 12:00 AM

03/24/2013 11:21 AM

The conviction of five former officials of the small Southern California city of Bell on corruption charges this week is a victory for governmental integrity.

However, it also affirmed the role that a free and vigorous press plays in policing that integrity, since the official investigation that resulted in the convictions stemmed directly from Los Angeles Times articles.

By the same token, the Legislature's push to speed up processing of business paperwork by the secretary of state's office stemmed from a Bee article that laid out unconscionable delays that discourage business investment.

And so forth.

It's no secret that the Times, The Bee and other California newspapers have been hit hard by the worst recession since the Great Depression, as well as massive technological change. The Times' parent company, in fact, just emerged from bankruptcy protection.

Nevertheless, they and other California newspapers continue to take their watchdog roles very seriously, committing reportorial time and other resources to probing increasingly complex political and governmental issues and telling the public what they find. And several new nonprofit news-gathering operations have emerged with the same goal.

Reporters have no subpoena power or other means of compelling those in public office to come clean. We journalists rely on sources, our own instincts and laws requiring public records to be available to do our work.

This week, a judge in San Jose struck a blow for open government by ruling that the electronic communications of officials are just as subject to open records laws as paper communications. But it also was revealed this week that the state court system wants to impose a very burdensome $10 fee for even requesting a court document, plus heavy charges for copying.

Gov. Jerry Brown's budget includes those onerous provisions. Brown had already pushed for repealing the legal requirement on local governments to post public notices of their meetings.

The state Assembly, meanwhile, tried to impose restrictions on reporters talking to legislators – then backed off when it began taking heat.

Political figures tend to see open meetings, open records and other "sunshine laws" as annoyances. They may be, consciously or otherwise, using fiscal stress to make access by journalists – and the general public, for that matter – more onerous and thereby make watching and reporting on what they do more difficult.

The systemic looting of Bell went on for years until the Times exposed it. It was, however, not an isolated case.

Corruption and lesser forms of civic malfeasance are always prevalent. And if journalists' efforts to uncover it can be thwarted by tedious restrictions on access to records and meetings, it will flourish even more.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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