California Voters Tell Cities That Transparency’s Non-Negotiable

Submitted by LDieringer on Tue, 07/01/2014 - 2:01pm

A fascinating little open-government bill called Proposition 42 passed easily in California on Tuesday. The bill does, in the main, two things. It adds a requirement to the California constitution that city governments comply with two state transparency laws, the California Public Records Act and the Ralph M. Brown Open Meetings Act. And it requires those local governments, and not the state, to pick up the tab for whatever it costs to abide by those rules — a financial burden that the Legislative Analysts’ Office (LAO), the California legislature’s in-house policy advisors, has saidcould amount to tens of millions of dollars a year.

It might not be immediately clear why sticking oft-cash-strapped cities with a tab for transparency is being heralded as a major open-government win, so let’s dive in, starting with a brief bit of California legislative history. In 2013, California approved letting the state off the hook for reimbursing local governments for the work undertaken to comply with parts of transparency laws, but this created something of a loophole that allowed cities to avoid opening their records on the grounds that they couldn’t afford it. Then talk turned to the idea that if the law had been in place in 2010, reporters might not have gotten the records to expose a cover-up in the scandal-soaked southern California city of Bell, where open-records requests led by the Los Angeles Timesrevealed that astronomical salaries were being awarded to scores of city officials, including city manager Robert Rizzo. Enter Prop 42, which eliminates the ability of cities and towns to skirt those transparency laws on financial grounds.

Prop 42 had passed both houses of the California legislature with no opposition. And while the state Green Party had urged a “no” vote — “Transparency in government,” it said, “should not be dependent upon the finances or practices of any particular local government agency” — the act otherwise had broad support, including that of the state Republican and Democratic parties, the League of Women Voters of California, and the California Newspaper Publishers Association. Continue>>>
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