Our View

Transparency, set in stone

By From page A14 | April 27, 2014

The issue: No more loopholes, no more questions; local government must be accountable

California voters will have an opportunity in June to strengthen laws requiring local governments and agencies to provide access to documents and meetings.

THOUGHT THE laws were strong enough? The Public Records Act and the Ralph M. Brown Act on open meetings sure seem like clear declarations of transparency, but when it comes to money, nothing is certain.

The key point is that under current legislation, the state must reimburse local government for the cost of complying with these laws. During the fiscal crisis, the state sought to trim the budget deficit by suspending these payments, creating confusion about which parts of the laws are still in force. Local agencies were left in limbo, not entirely sure how to proceed. But clearly, transparency can be guaranteed only as long as there is will in Sacramento to pay for it.

Proposition 42 will change all that. It creates an unambiguous constitutional requirement for local government to keep its records, documents and meetings open to the public. This is no trivial issue, it’s a critical part of a working democracy.

As the Yes on 42 committee put it, “Without Prop. 42, Californians will never fully know what’s happening in their local  governments and agencies. And after all the scandals we’ve had in California cities like Bell, where there was widespread abuse and mismanagement of taxpayer dollars, it’s clear that citizens need to have access to public meetings and records.”

Never mind Bell; what if the Davis City Council didn’t have to disclose the cost of the regional water project? Or the latest employment contract with the firefighters’ union?

TO BE SURE, this could end up costing local governments, and they will lead the resistance to Prop. 42. In the past, whenever they were caught out of compliance, they could simply bill the state to make up for it. With Prop. 42, they will own their mistakes.

Now, every lost document or overlooked financial statement would be their responsibility. Ideally, this will give cities, counties and special districts an incentive to be open at all times, rather than after the fact. If not, the extra expense will be on them.

Openness should not depend on the state’s financial condition; transparency should be built in to the government’s DNA. Voting yes on Proposition 42 on June 3 will accomplish just that.

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