Joyce Terhaar

Joyce Terhaar: Senate report on Caltrans speaks to culture of open government

The recent state Senate investigative report into Caltrans and the Bay Bridge does more than deal with troubled decision-making and construction work. It also includes a strong push for greater public transparency throughout state government.

The report commissioned by Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, and his Senate Transportation and Housing Committee ends with 16 conclusions and recommendations. The first among them is this: “Transparency in the affairs of the public is paramount and leads to accountability, which leads to better results.”

Caltrans itself, in a July 25 letter and report to DeSaulnier about lessons learned, said the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee that took responsibility for the bridge construction “should have been more transparent.” The committee meetings were closed, and Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty said in the letter that “this process could have been more effective had it occurred during regular public meetings.”

The call for more open state government is heartening given The Bee’s battle for information about the bridge construction. Reporter Charles Piller has spent about three years investigating Caltrans, most of it looking into serious allegations of unsafe construction practices on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. He’s filed dozens of Public Records Act requests for documents, which typically have taken months to fulfill. In some cases, Caltrans ignored requests or only partly fulfilled them. In another, the agency posted documents we requested online rather than provide them to The Bee, and we accessed them that way.

Caltrans spent too much time trying to delay our coverage and make it more expensive for us to pursue. Just one example: When Piller requested data regarding rusty tendons in the bridge skyway, the agency did not release the documents electronically – a process that would have been faster – but instead, a few months later, printed and released 30,000 pages on paper. That meant Caltrans assigned an employee to staff a conference room for 21/2 days while a contractor we hired brought in a high-speed scanner to digitize the documents after Piller reviewed them. While it increased our cost, it also increased the cost to the state – and to taxpayers.

When DeSaulnier and Transportation Agency Secretary Brian Kelly became aware of our efforts to obtain the records, Caltrans released another 50,000 pages electronically.

Also, we often were denied interviews with key Caltrans employees. Early on, lack of response went all the way to the governor’s office until political reporter David Siders got access to Gov. Jerry Brown at a news conference in August 2012. Brown, when finally questioned, quoted his staff as saying The Bee’s reporting “borders on malpractice.”

Piller’s reporting led to the investigations and Senate hearings and, now, a greater push for open government. The Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee, for instance, now adheres to the state’s open meetings law.

In addition, DeSaulnier called for a criminal investigation given the results of his committee’s report, and said last week he’s taking his findings to Attorney General Kamala Harris.

The Senate investigative report’s recommendations go well beyond Caltrans to a culture of open government. They are strong recommendations that ought to be welcomed by every Californian. They include:

• No public agency should be exempt from basic open government, including open meeting laws.

• Top state officials and politicians need to investigate allegations of retribution against dissenters within Caltrans who were trying to protect the public.

• All state communication should be “in some permanent, retrievable media such as writing.”

• The state should have “mandatory” websites used for “disclosure, discourse, critiques, inquiries and more” rather than just to promote government work.

• State agencies should “routinely collect, consolidate and curate studies, reports and audits by subject, and make them readily available to the public online.”

• Caltrans should publish contracts executed with its contractors.

“The proliferation of speculation in place of quality public information serves no one,” the report states. “Not the men and women who built the bridge and gave much of their lives for this lifeline structure. Not the people who managed the construction of the bridge and decry rumors and what they consider misleading or even downright sloppy news stories. Not the California state government, charged with carrying out its fiduciary responsibilities to the public. And certainly not the people of California, who have every right to know what their money and sacrifice have bought them. There is an antidote for this problem: open access to public information.”

I couldn’t agree more.