Dan Walters

Opinion: ‘Oversight’ needed, but rare today

Former Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, right, created a crew of former reporters to delve into thorny issues, and it generated some noteworthy reports, but Steinberg’s successor, Kevin de León, has disbanded it.
Former Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, right, created a crew of former reporters to delve into thorny issues, and it generated some noteworthy reports, but Steinberg’s successor, Kevin de León, has disbanded it. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Legislative leaders occasionally proclaim that they want to do more “oversight” – looking into how well state government agencies are serving the public interest.

At best, however, it has been spotty.

In past years, we saw serious investigations into allegations of wrongdoing in the secretary of state’s office and the Department of Insurance, and of political interference in a massive computer software contract.

But that was then. What passes for oversight these days are often brief, highly orchestrated hearings that curry favor with some interest group.

The state auditor’s office drills deeply into some big issues – recently, for example, shortcomings in the state’s court system – but acts only when the Legislature assigns it. Its reports are often ignored.

Former Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg created a crew of former reporters to delve into thorny issues, and it generated some noteworthy reports, but Steinberg’s successor, Kevin de León, has disbanded it.

Notwithstanding that lackadaisical attitude, there is no shortage of dirty laundry that needs airing, to wit:

▪ The auditor’s findings about the courts. Its criticism mirrors complaints by the Alliance of California Judges that the San Francisco-based administration has wasted money on itself while forcing trial courts to take big cuts.

The judges should be given an opportunity to air their criticism in public. Those in charge of the courts should be required to respond in public.

▪ There’s been a nonstop barrage of revelations about cozy relationships between the state’s major utilities and members of the California Public Utilities Commission, which should be protecting ratepayers.

The president of the commission, former utility executive Michael Peevey, has stepped down, but it’s unclear whether the institutional rot has been exorcised. Only the Legislature has the power to delve into the situation.

▪ It’s been alleged that investigators from the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection lied under oath in a complex federal lawsuit over legal responsibility for a 65,000-acre Sierra Nevada fire seven years ago, falsely accusing Sierra Pacific Industries.

A Sierra County judge declared that Cal Fire, as the agency is known, engaged in “egregious and reprehensible conduct” in the investigation and ordered it to pay $32 million in penalties to Sierra Pacific. The Legislature should demand to know what happened.

▪ There’s a long-running conflict over whether the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, which is supposed to be neutral, is trying to force unionization of Gerawan Farming by refusing to count ballots in a representation election.

It’s time for the Legislature to tell us who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.

And these are just a few of the issues that cry out for oversight.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/dan-walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

  Comments