California authorizes government in the shadows
by Don Tatzin, from S.F. Gate
Published 07:49 p.m., Sunday, July 22, 2012
I do not envy the challenge facing California's legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown. The bursting of the housing bubble, high unemployment, reduced property values and the never-ending Great Recession, coupled with the rising cost of government, have triggered a financial debacle from which state government may not recover for a decade. Even in difficult times, however, state officials should not forget the words of the Declaration of Independence: "Governments ... [derive] their just powers from the consent of the governed."
Pursuant to that spirit, in 1953 California adopted the Ralph M. Brown Act, which demanded that lawmakers make decisions openly and deliberate before the public. "The people of this State," states the act, "do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created."
Our lawmakers have seemingly forgotten these commands.
In what was billed as a cost-saving move, the Legislature and the governor recently suspended portions of the Brown Act - specifically those ordering local governments to post notices of public meetings in advance.
This purportedly will save state government about $96 million by eliminating a mandate. (Mandates placed on local government by Sacramento must be paid for by the state government.) This saving equals about .07 percent of the state budget. Despite the loss of state funding, the vast majority of school districts, cities, special districts and counties will follow the law, because it is the right thing to do.
Some jurisdictions, however, will not, and the implications of their actions could be more costly than the money saved. These agencies will, instead, follow the Legislature's and governor's cynical lead and no longer post meeting notices or report results of closed sessions. Eventually, an agency will do something wrong - either unintentionally or purposefully crooked - that might not have occurred if the public and press oversight that comes from posting agendas and reporting actions were required.
When that happens, we will hear the predictable hue and cry from the press and Sacramento lamenting the day. Special investigations will be launched, reports issued and crackdowns promised.
Citizen confidence in government will decline further. People will be less likely to vote for new taxes if they know that the governing body can meet without public notice to decide how to spend their money and make other important decisions. If just a few of California's hundreds of local governments act badly, the rest are tainted.
Citizens should do two things. First, demand that the local governments that serve you continue to adhere to the Brown Act. Second, convey your opinions of the state's decision to your legislators and Gov. Brown.
History offers inspiring stories of people who would not trade their principles for temporal benefit. Those stories should be required reading in Sacramento.