Joyce Terhaar

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From the Executive Editor: Public's business can't stay secret

Published: Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1E
Last Modified: Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012 - 10:40 am

The Bee's Melody Gutierrez has been working for weeks to obtain documents from the Twin Rivers Unified School District that show who, exactly, has been placed on administrative leave for disciplinary reasons since this troubled district was created.

It's been an awkward dance. Even after the district declined Gutierrez's request, it provided a list of people currently on disciplinary leave to our editorial board. And then it offered up the full list to Gutierrez, but with names redacted.

For those of you following the district's ongoing saga, you know this list should be publicly scrutinized. Misuse of police power and district resources are just two of many problems; some argue the wrong people have been put on leave.

Decisions by district officials to withhold information underscores the importance of strong laws protecting the public's right to know. They also leave me wondering about the consequences of a state move in June to suspend a mandate requiring local governments, under the Brown Act, to post a meeting agenda 72 hours before a meeting.

Access to public documents and the ability to observe or participate in decision-making by public officials are essential to democracy. Both allow oversight of elected officials. Meeting agendas allow reporters at The Bee and elsewhere to publish stories ensuring the public is aware of issues and possible decisions before any vote. Public officials can't vote on issues if they aren't on the agenda. When you know what's on an agenda, you are informed and can choose whether to weigh in.

The suspension is about dollars – in this case about $20 million – not secrecy. If the Legislature doesn't mandate it, the state doesn't have to pay for it. The thinking is that local governments already do this, and will continue to do so.

But will they?

San Diegans for Open Government filed suit against the state of California in July, saying the budget bill was unconstitutional because it "has the effect of limiting the public's right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people's business."

Bee reporters asked some of the bigger local governments – the city of Sacramento, the city of Roseville, and Sacramento and Placer counties – if they plan to continue to publish agendas. All said yes, for reasons similar to what Roseville's Brian Jacobson told Ed Fletcher of The Bee: "Transparency is very important to us."

Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said, "Any local government that doesn't do it in some shape or form should be pink-slipped by the voters. It's unforgivable not to do it. All they have to do is make public the agenda that they're giving to their own fellow city council members."

Democracy, though, is a messy thing. Sometimes it's easier to keep quiet than to deal with public outrage or pressure. Famously corrupt governments – the city of Bell comes to mind here – haven't even followed the law much less stepped up to do the right thing without a legal requirement.

The Brown Act mandate issue may well be fixed by year's end. If passed, the Schools and Local Public Safety Protection Act of 2012, a Gov. Jerry Brown-sponsored tax initiative on the November ballot, has a constitutional fix.

Scheer contends that the Brown Act isn't the most important public access issue this year under the Capitol dome, anyway.

Instead, Scheer points to what he calls "outrageous" behavior by legislators putting together this year's budget legislation. The main budget bill had a couple of dozen "trailer bills" that were approved without public vetting. They included provisions such as one that moved Brown's tax initiative to the top of the November ballot in an attempt to get more votes.

"It really takes an effort now to hide things and they are exerting themselves vigorously," Scheer said. "When they do that and then toss half a bone to the media and open government constituencies by fixing this or that in the Public Records Act, at the end of the day that balance works against democracy."

Such effort to hide things is playing out in Twin Rivers as well, as officials dance to parry public record requests. In the end, efforts to hide public documents, or public decisions, from public scrutiny cost all of us.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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