Do as we say, not as we do.
Over the decades, the California Legislature has passed numerous “sunshine laws” to bolster government transparency.
The laws – open meetings of government agencies, open records, competitive contract bidding, etc. – are valuable tools not only for journalists but for anyone interested in knowing what public officials are doing and why they are doing it.
However, the Legislature has either exempted itself from the sunshine laws it imposes on others or passed very weak versions for itself.
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Bee reporter Laurel Rosenhall, in an extensive article, pointed out that when the Legislature passed a law 15 years ago to mandate greater access to public records by any format available, including electronic, it exempted itself.
Rosenhall quoted then-Assemblyman Kevin Shelley, the author of that law, as saying he wanted to apply the law to the Legislature, “But there was not a lot of, shall we say, support for the notion. It was a non-starter.”
It is, however, only one example of how the Legislature shields itself from the journalistic and public scrutiny that it requires other agencies to endure.
California’s Brown Act makes it illegal for a quorum of a public agency to meet behind closed doors except for specified purposes, such as personnel matters or legal actions. Routinely, however, legislative majorities meet in “caucuses” to script how they’ll handle pending legislation, including how members will vote.
During the legislative session’s most hectic periods – when the final state budget is being written or just before annual adjournment – secrecy rules.
Dozens of so-called “budget trailer bills” are written in the dead of night, often with provisions that have little or nothing to do with the budget, and quickly enacted. They’ve been dubbed “mushroom bills” – grown in darkness, nourished in excrement.
Mushroom bills sprout again in the session’s final hours, often appearing on legislators’ desks moments before they are asked to vote.
Apologists contend that secrecy is needed to pass beneficial bills that might otherwise be thwarted by special interests. More often than not, however, they benefit narrow interests, such as last year’s limit on local school district reserves, a favor to the California Teachers Association.
Assembly Republican leader Kristin Olsen has introduced a constitutional amendment that would require bills to be in print for 72 hours before a vote, unless the governor declares an emergency.
It’s a very reasonable reform, but majority Democrats rejected it previously and probably will again, so they can continue doing our business in secret.
Ironically, however, the Assembly on Monday passed a resolution commemorating “Sunshine Week” and extolling the virtues of government transparency.
Do as we say, not as we do.
Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/dan-walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.