“A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both.” – James Madison
California’s 58 counties have long valued transparency and accountability in government. Our local elected officials embrace, even promote, the ability of their constituents to participate in the process and the access of residents to public records and information. Counties like San Mateo and Los Angeles and the City and County of San Francisco are leading the effort in the era of open data, establishing websites where records and information can be easily accessed by a simple keystroke. Counties have assuredly let the sun shine in.
But just like those cassette tapes you can’t seem to toss (hey, I have a few mixed tapes that have endured 25 years and umpteen moves just because New Kids on the Block just doesn’t sound the same on a CD, ok?), there’s a flip side.
Last year, voters approved Proposition 42, which enshrined the provisions of the Open Meetings Act and the Public Records Act in the state constitution. Awesome, right? Everyone is on board with making sure we get that relationship on lock down. Put a ring on it, California. Except that doing so not only ensured local governments responsibly abided by the Brown Act and Public Records Act, but it placed a mandated service into the state constitution and exempted it from the requirement that the state pay for any new programs or higher levels of service. Any future legislative changes to the Open Meetings Act and the Public Records Act (and there will be many) will now avoid the scrutiny of any fiscal review by the Legislature (which, consequently, isn’t governed by the Brown Act or PRA. Weird.); when the state doesn’t have any fiscal incentive to consider local costs as part of statewide statutory requirements, it doesn’t have much incentive to ensure efficiency and effectiveness for local agencies that are supposed to be providing the service.
That puts us counties into a quandary. We love open government. We love our residents taking a part in the governance of their communities. We want public input when important local decisions are being made. However, Proposition 42’s passage meant that the Legislature, whenever it wants to “fix” a perceived open government issue within local public agencies, will be able to pass piecemeal legislation that may or may not actually address a legitimate issue and could impose significant costs and administrative burdens on us.
So how will CSAC celebrate Sunshine Week? By ensuring that the Legislature and the public realize counties’ dedication to providing access to transparent government, but balancing that with an effort to educate that same audience on the fact that fragmentary, mandated changes to open government laws don’t always translate into cost-effective services for Californians.