Jerry Brown’s Assault on Transparency

The governor and state legislative leaders struck a backroom deal to eviscerate portions of California's public records law. Plus, Big Oil and Gas defeat fracking bills.

When he was mayor of Oakland, Jerry Brown was never a fan of transparency and openness in government. He made a habit of blocking access to public records back then, and his staff destroyed reams of public documents before he left City Hall in late 2006. So it was no surprise that Governor Brown’s administration worked behind closed doors in recent weeks with state Democratic leaders to gut key aspects of California’s open records law.

As reported by the Bay Area News Group (BANG) last weekend, legislative leaders quietly tucked a last-minute bill that weakens the California Public Records Act into the package of budget legislation for the next fiscal year. The public records bill, as result, was never vetted publicly; it never went through legislative committees like other bills do. “This is the worst assault on the public’s right to know I have seen in my eighteen years of doing this,” Jim Ewert, general counsel of the California Newspaper Publisher’s Association, told BANG.

The bill, which Brown is expected to sign into law before June 30, would allow local governments and public agencies to reject public records requests without citing a reason. It also would let local governments ignore the current requirement that they respond to records requests within ten days.

Not surprisingly, the Democratic leaders who worked in secret on the bill that would eviscerate the public’s right to know have chosen to remain tight-lipped about their actions. Those legislative leaders include East Bay state Senators Loni Hancock and Mark DeSaulnier. As for the Brown administration, it claims the bill will save the state from having to reimburse local governments millions of dollars a year when they comply with the Public Records Act. It also contends that local governments will continue to fulfill public records requests and pay for the costs themselves, as part of “best practices.”

But the lone Bay Area Democratic senator who voted against the legislation, Leland Yee of San Francisco, disputed the administration’s claims. “It’s not about saving money; it’s all about curtailing an open, transparent government that can be held accountable,” Yee told BANG. “The only way we’re held accountable is when the public has the information to understand what were doing.”

Yee’s right, of course. It’s also clear that Brown and the Democratic leaders who made this backdoor assault on transparency did so in secret because they knew their bill would never get through an open process at the Capitol. As such, Hancock and DeSaulnier should be ashamed about what they’ve done and should publicly apologize.

As for Brown, this latest action is just more of the same. In the early part of the last decade, he worked furiously to block access to public records in Oakland, including an investigative report concerning his then-top aide, Jacques Barzaghi. Several female employees at City Hall had accused Barzaghi of sexual harassment, but Brown’s administration went to court to keep the report on Barzaghi secret. Brown’s staffers then destroyed essentially all public records in the mayor’s office after he was elected California attorney general — the statewide position in charge of enforcing the Public Records Act.

Money Talks on Fracking

Big Oil and Gas interests have proven once again the power of big campaign contributions in the state legislature — and that money trumps what citizens want. Over the past year, Californians have grown increasingly concerned about fracking, the controversial process of extracting oil and natural gas. Fracking involves shooting toxic chemicals deep into the earth and has raised issues about the pollution of groundwater.

A poll commissioned by USC and the Los Angeles Times showed earlier this month that 58 percent of Californians support a moratorium on fracking until it can be proven safe. In addition, a total of 70 percent of California residents said they would either support a moratorium or additional state regulations on fracking.

Yet despite this strong public support, elected officials killed nearly all legislation introduced this year to regulate fracking in California, including a moratorium bill, after oil and natural gas companies flooded Sacramento with campaign donations. The only legislation left is a weak bill that hasn’t generated much controversy. According to data compiled by the Berkeley-based, Big Oil and Gas contributed at least $464,000 to political campaigns — outspending fracking opponents by a seven-to-one margin.

The legislators who voted “no” on the moratorium received 31 times as much money from oil and gas interests as they did from fracking opponents. And seventeen legislators — all Democrats — decided not to cast votes on the moratorium bill after pocketing five times more money from oil and gas interests than from fracking foes.

East Bay Assembly members who failed to vote on the moratorium bill included Rob Bonta, Joan Buchanan, Bill Quirk, and Bob Wieckowski. If they and the other thirteen Democrats who didn’t cast ballots had voted for the bill, AB 1323, it would have passed the Assembly and would now be in the state Senate.

Quan Staffer Named to School Board

The Oakland school board appointed Anne Campbell Washington — Mayor Jean Quan’s chief of staff — to fill a vacant seat on the board, the Oakland Tribune reported. Campbell Washington will replace outgoing board member Gary Yee, who is taking over as interim superintendent of schools.

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