Our View: Preserve free and open government with Proposition 42

03/31/2014 7:00 PM

03/31/2014 7:52 PM

If you value a free and open society in which government is not allowed to hide behind flimsy excuses, then you will vote “yes” on Proposition 42.

Within a couple of weeks, absentee ballots for the June 3 election will be arriving in the mail. As 70 percent of the county’s residents vote by mail, it’s not too soon to be considering ballot initiatives and candidates in local races.

If passed, Proposition 42 will enshrine in law the requirement that local governments and agencies continue to provide public access to documents and adhere to open meeting rules – no matter the costs.

Didn’t realize those things were ever in jeopardy? For a brief time last year, they were.

Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders were preparing to suspend parts of the our state’s two most essential public information access laws – the California Public Records Act and the Ralph M. Brown Act (named for the Modesto assemblyman) – for the sake of saving local governments money. Under the governor’s proposal, if the cost to comply with a Freedom of Information Act request was deemed too high, a local agency could ignore it. The outcry was immediate and, evidently, persuasive enough to get them to back down. This ballot measure, sponsored by Sen. Mark Leno with support from the governor and Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, is an appropriate response. The vote to put it on the ballot was unanimous in the Senate and the Assembly. Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and the First Amendment Coalition all support it.

The threat to public access stemmed from the struggle between state and local governments about who pays for what. State government is required to reimburse local governments for the cost of complying with state laws. As part of the 2013-14 budget, Brown decided not to reimburse tens of millions of dollars to local governments for the cost of complying with state public access laws. In exchange, the local governments had the option of not complying if they said they couldn’t afford it.

No government should ever have that choice. Either we have access to public records and open meetings or we don’t have any accountability. It’s hard enough now to keep elected leaders from lining their wallets or giving away public money. Even some with good intentions sometimes do things they shouldn’t if they believe no one will notice.

Remember those larcenous city officials in Bell? It was municipal public records that outed their six-figure salaries and started an investigation that landed City Council members and top city officials in jail. Closer to home, do you think public agencies overseeing those who remodel low-income housing would ever disclose the costs if they could avoid scrutiny? Do you doubt that school districts, cities, counties, water districts and every other agency would gladly tell us what they’re paying employees if they don’t have to?

Transparency is absolutely essential if we are to remain an informed citizenry. Like public safety, it must be factored into government’s bottom line. Passing Proposition 42 will ensure that happens by taking away the state mandate to reimburse for public access while reaffirming the requirement that cities, school boards, water districts and all other local governments must comply – no matter what it costs.

Nothing of value comes with no expense, and that includes democracy.

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