The People’s Business

LAST YEAR, WHEN GRAY DAVIS — still governor, for the time being — acknowledged just how deep the state’s budget mess was, he decided to save a few million bucks by lifting the requirement that cities, counties and the several hundred other governmental bodies draw up agendas for their meetings and make them public. He figured the local governments would still post agendas, at their own expense, even if the state no longer reimbursed them, because it would be irresponsible not to.

Nice try. The public outcry was fierce, and Davis had to back off the plan almost immediately.

Also last year, a San Mateo County judge rejected an attempt by the Palo Alto Daily News to find out the names and salaries of public employees in a handful of California cities. Public Records Act or no, the judge said, the names of people who are paid with taxpayer money, and the amount of that money that they get, is none of the public’s business.

Laws making it clear that the government works for the people and that its business is the people’s business have become shockingly easy to brush aside. And so we have Proposition 59, which arguably does little more than to say about key public-access laws, “We really mean it.”

The ballot measure would elevate five groundbreaking laws from the statute books to the state Constitution, where they could not be overturned or ignored — for the most part — without a vote of the people. Prop. 59 also would require courts to broadly interpret laws that further the people’s right to get government data, and narrowly interpret laws that cut the other way, like exemptions and exceptions that allow closed sessions and confidential documents.

The Ralph M. Brown Act requires city councils, boards of supervisors and other local legislative bodies to provide public notice of their agendas and to conduct their meetings openly, in public. The Grunsky-Burton Act does the same for the state Legislature, and the Bagley-Keene Act applies to other state bodies.

The California Public Records Act makes clear that anyone can see copies of state and local government documents, subject to clearly posted written guidelines. The Legislative Open Records Act provides that the public may inspect legislative records. The act also requires legislative committees to maintain documents related to the history of legislation.

It would be bad form to oppose a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the people rights they already have, and the Assembly and Senate voted unanimously to put Senate Constitutional Amendment 1 on the ballot as Prop. 59.

But check out who opposes 59: Mountain View lawyer Gary B. Wesley, who takes local governments to court when they claim they have a right to go into closed session to talk about litigation, as is permitted by the Brown Act. Prop. 59 may be better than nothing, Wesley says, but that’s not good enough.

Still, it’s a step in the right direction. You only have to see how the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors plays fast and loose with the Brown Act to know something must be done. Last month they slunk into closed session under the exception that allows them to talk privately with their lawyers about filing lawsuits, and instead talked about (and maybe even adopted) a plan to close the trauma center of Martin Luther King–Drew Medical Center.

It would be overkill to repeat how badly the board muffed the Brown Act in 2001. But what the heck? They were trying to stop a petition for a ballot measure to raise pay for home health-care workers, but they didn’t want anyone to know. So they retired behind closed doors, under the litigation exception. Instead of talking about filing a suit, their lawyer suggested that he do something so improper — fail to turn over petition data to the county registrar — that the people behind the initiative would sue them! See? Closed session is okay because we’re talking about lawsuits! It was brilliant. And sneaky and disgusting.

The lawyer apparently thought so too, because he later called up three of the five supervisors and said never mind. That, too, may have violated the Brown Act. Then the board met in closed session to talk about their lawyer’s suggestions further under the exception for personnel evaluations.

How many city councils and boards of supervisors, paid with your money, sit in your buildings and figure out ways to keep information from you? There’s no way to know. Prop. 59 won’t put a stop to it, but it’s a step forward. There’s nothing wrong with yet one more statement on the books that the public’s business must be public. We really mean it.

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