California must invest in open government for the sun to shine

150 150 Jim Mayer

As Sunshine Week draws to a close, the need for California to get its transparent eggs in order is as strong as ever. (Photo Credit: George M. Groutas)

California is a remarkable place, literally changing the world. With innovations in communication and information, technology is now a bigger part of our reputation than that flash-in-the pan Gold Rush. Innovation touches us – and we touch it – all day every day.

At the same time, here in California, events have conspired to create another type of change – one toward an open and accountable government.

Voters created the Citizens Redistricting Commission and enterprising state officials have launched new tools that let us track compensation of public employees – an issue in need of more visibility in recent years.

Unfortunately, as a whole, California’s commitment to open government has not kept pace with innovation.

The Ralph M. Brown Act, the foundation of the state’s open government policies, was passed before the invention of the Xerox machine.

California’s Public Records Act and many of the laws governing public meetings and communication between elected officials did not anticipate the Internet, let alone cellphones or social media.

With the internationally renowned ecosystem of Web developers and technology entrepreneurs in California, the lag in providing good quality data to our own residents is a missed opportunity. Innovative private firms operate in this state to aid in reporting and evaluating data, but the reporting systems in place are outdated and too weak to populate these resources.

The state recently shut down, citing cost issues – though several reports indicated the cost for the site was just over $21,000. That doesn’t seem like much money to invest in order to tell Californians that transparency is important and can help lead to a better educated public and, maybe, better informed decisions made by public officials.

So here we are in Sunshine Week – when a nationwide discussion occurs about the importance of public information and what it means to the people that government serves. We’d like to add our voice.

California Forward, a bipartisan nonprofit advocate for good government, has issued a “State of Transparency in California,” examining some of the issues facing our state and who is striving to improve them. We hesitate to call it a report, because it isn’t – yet. We think of it as a conversation-starter among Californians who want and deserve open and accountable governments.

Many state and local leaders are cognizant of the importance of maintaining a government that is accessible to its people. State Controller John Chiang has played an integral role in defending transparency and improving access to the financial records of cities, counties and special districts. Chiang is also responsible for creating “public pay” – a website intended to inform Californians about how much their state and local representatives are being paid. Cities like San Francisco, Santa Ana and Corona have self-imposed higher transparency standards by adopting sunshine ordinances and other open government rules.

On the legislative front, state Sen. Leland Yee was instrumental in strengthening weak provisions under the Brown Act with the passage of SB 1003, though key proposals by him and others to expand public access to key documents and data failed in the Capitol.

We think freeing this information is good public policy because a lack of valid data is preventing policymakers and the public alike from making informed choices. We believe that using technology – as many states, nations and local governments are now doing – can improve the relationship between people and their government here in California.

Whether limited by outmoded reporting systems, or intentionally withheld or obscured as in the state Department of Parks and Recreation or the city of Bell, the bottom line is that financial and performance data on state and local government can be difficult to obtain, interpret and evaluate.

Putting budgets, salaries and performance data online allows the sun to shine on how the government spends our money, whether we spend it wisely and whether we are getting value for the services.

It also can help to erase some of the distrust and insecurity that Californians have about their government.

That seems like a worthy goal, don’t you think?

This piece was originally published in the Sacramento Bee on March 14th. 


Jim Mayer

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