Open government more vital than ever...Editorial
When the going gets tough, as it is for most public agencies these days, elected officials too often tend to want to pull the drapes, close the doors and shut out the public.
That sad truth was painfully obvious earlier this winter when state budget negotiations didn't take place on the floor of the Legislature but behind closed doors, with the top leaders of each house and the governor appearing to make all the important decisions. It was weeks before the public, and even other legislators, learned what had been agreed upon.
That kind of secrecy isn't right. That's why we join newspapers across the country during this Sunshine Week to emphasize the public's right to know what their government agencies are doing -- how, why, when, where and how much it costs.
This anti-secrecy philosophy isn't an antiquated concept. In fact, we believe openness and access is more important than ever when money is tight and e-mail and other technology allow elected officials to convene and confer without ever setting foot in the same room.
Elected bodies in California fall under the requirements of the Brown Act, written by the now late Assemblyman Ralph M. Brown of Modesto. It requires that meetings be held in public. But that means more than just having the doors unlocked. Open government must be put into practice in many ways:
Agenda items should be written in conversational language, not legalese;
Meetings held at convenient times and in convenient places for the public to attend;
Thorough discussions by board members, especially with explanations as to why they are voting as they are;
Meetings that are televised or Webcast, either live or for later viewing;
Web sites that are not just pretty but useful, providing access to rules, forms and individuals responsible for various aspects of public service.
The philosophy of open government extends beyond public meetings to political campaigns and to the daily operations of agencies, most notably the police and courts.
The Bee serves as a watchdog, and one of the most common themes on this page is the need for openness. Why are we so persistent? First, it's the law. But second, and perhaps more important, openness builds credibility among citizens.
The public has a right to know what their representatives are doing and what their tax dollars are used for. We take seriously our responsibility to ask -- and ask and ask -- those questions.
Sunshine, not darkness, will cultivate the kind of government and country we want and deserve.
Do public business in the open
Sunshine Week starts today with a focus on the public's right to know...Editorial
Today marks the beginning of Sunshine Week, the annual effort to bring the activities of government at every level squarely into the public eye where they belong. It's an ongoing effort, not limited to one week each year, and it's fundamentally important to the health of our representative democracy.
Although Sunshine Week is largely the work of journalists -- it's organized by the American Society of Newspaper Editors -- it really isn't about the media. It's about the the public's need and right to know what government is doing in its name.
We've seen many recent examples of actions by government that were detrimental to the people of this country, but were hidden or disguised by those in government for a variety of purposes: unaccountable spending of bailout funds by Wall Street and banks, slipshod oversight of children's toys, egregious abuses of wounded veterans at the Walter Reed Army Hospital.
Locally, we have seen the recent episode involving accounting for the discretionary funds allotted to each member of the Fresno City Council. The money was described in budgets with an impenetrable sort of code that told us nothing about how taxpayer dollars were actually being spent.
The reasons for government obfuscation are sometimes sinister, but more often they are about embarrassing mistakes that officials want to hide, or just to keep pesky citizens from burdening public employees with work they don't want to do.
Another area in which the public can make a difference is by supporting efforts to open up the records of campaign contributions. Knowing where candidates' support lies is crucial to understanding the positions they take on issues. In an era driven at computer speed, it's ridiculous to find that last-minute donations can be hidden from the public until weeks after the election -- when it's too late.
An example: In Washington, D.C., both the House of Representatives and the White House are required to file donations electronically, which means they are nearly instantly available. Not so in the Senate, where such records are still kept on paper.
The Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act (S. 482), now pending, would change that, but similar efforts have failed in the past, and there is no guarantee this one will succeed, despite the fact that no senator has been so bold as to publicly oppose it.
President Obama has promised more transparency in government, and that's good. But the key is holding him to that promise. Indeed, that's the key at every level of government. It's not enough to let officials promise openness. It has to be demanded constantly, and there must be consequences for officials who fail to do the public's business out in the open.
That can't happen unless the public takes on the task. The media can do a great deal to protect and promote access to public information, but it really rests with citizens to make sure that it happens. Demand to know what's being done in your name. It's your right.
Short-line rail backers look to the long haul...Lewis Griswold
Last year, Tulare County Supervisor Allen Ishida embarked on a quest to save 40 miles of railroad track from being torn out and sold for scrap metal. He even suggested that Tulare County buy the right of way, which extends from Exeter to Jovista.
The track is still there, and Ishida is still on the case.
This time, he's not alone. The business community and city councils of affected communities have rallied around the rail cause.
"The abandonment would affect us economically in the short term and the long term," said Lindsay Council Member Pat Kimball.
Ishida and his allies are now maneuvering for a white knight to buy the San Joaquin Valley Railroad, the short line that operates in Fresno, Tulare and Kern counties.
"The answer is a private-public partnership," Ishida said.
Tulare, Fresno and Kern counties could create a group that would pair up with a short-line company and buy the right of way. The federal government makes 3% loans payable over 35 years for rail projects, Ishida said.
SJVRR company officials in Exeter could not be reached to comment. But the company has told the government that there aren't enough shippers to make some lines profitable.
Several short-line railroad companies are possible partners, Ishida said, but he declined to name them.
On Monday, the Tulare County Association of Governments will look at a proposal for Tulare, Fresno and Kern counties to work together, he said.
Thom Sparks of Three Rivers, chairman of the county's rail committee, said a functioning rail line stretching from Fresno to Bakersfield would require that new track be laid to make the route whole. Adding 2 miles of track from Jovista (an old stop near the Tulare-Kern County line) to Delano would create the Fresno-to-Bakersfield rail connection, and so would adding 10 miles of new track between Richgrove in southern Tulare County and Hollis, an old stop east of McFarland in Kern County. Admittedly, some existing tracks are in poor condition and need work.
Ideally, a rail line from Bakersfield to the Oakland port could be patched together someday, Sparks noted.
Other areas of the country have short-line rail needs, so boosters like Ishida hope that the climate is right for Congress to add a short-line rail element to a new transportation bill.
California lags in posting government data online...Editorial
In North Carolina, residents can go to a government Web site and instantly look up the safety record of any child day care facility in the state. But not in California.
In Nevada, residents can review the financial interests of public officials online, seeing for themselves whether they might have conflicts of interest. But not in California.
And in Washington state, residents can search an online database to see exactly how the government is spending taxpayer money. But not in California.
About half of all states post more key public information online than California, according to a national survey conducted by media organizations as part of Sunshine Week, an annual effort designed to bring attention to open government. The home of Silicon Valley lagged behind states like Kansas and North Dakota in the survey, which was released today.
"You can make up excuses, but it doesn't serve any of us well to be deprived of transparency," said state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco.
Leno sponsored two bills mandating more information be posted online during the past couple of years; both passed the Legislature but were vetoed by the governor.
In California, the survey was conducted jointly by reporters with The Bee, the Bay Area News Group and Channel 10 news in San Diego.
Several California agencies that fared poorly in the survey cited the size of the state – and the massive quantity of records it produces – as the main reason they did not put some public information online.
"You definitely have to look at the fact that there are not really economies of scale when you are dealing with something like this," said Roman Porter, executive director of the Fair Political Practices Commission. That organization collects, but does not post online, conflict-of-interest forms filled out by public officials. Twenty-two other states do post that information.
Open government advocates aren't too sympathetic to that argument. It's becoming easier every day to maintain and share large amounts of information online, said Terry Francke, founder of Californians Aware, a nonprofit organization that advocates for open government. The Fair Political Practices Commission, for instance, could set up an online form that would collect information digitally, and then share that information with the public.
Also, other large states did better than California on the Sunshine Week survey. New York and Texas, the second- and third-most populated states, both ranked near the top for posting information online.
"If a huge corporation sees that certain information is going to be in demand, you can bet it would be available online," Francke said.
Francke did his own version of the survey and noted that even some of the information deemed adequate by the media surveyors was sometimes tough to find online and often incomplete.
Several California agencies do post a wealth of information online.
Everything you can think to ask about hospitals, for instance, is available at the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development's Web site. The state's Postsecondary Education Commission has more information about colleges online than any other state in the nation. And the California secretary of state's office lets residents search tens of thousands of contributions to every state political candidate or committee.
The secretary of state's office wants "to make information as open and accessible as possible," said spokeswoman Kate Folmar. It has had campaign finance data online since 2000.
Others, though, seem to post information haphazardly, putting up data likely to be insignificant to most residents and not posting data that might be of greater interest.
For instance, the state's Department of Social Services posts a variety of often-updated statistical reports about the state's welfare system and food stamp programs. But if you want to know if the day care center your child attends has a clean safety record, you won't be able to find it on the agency Web site.
Officials say they are working on getting that information online – they hope to have it available within the next few years. The difficulty, they say, is there are 80,000 licensed child care providers in the state, and it would be hard to electronically scan all the inspection and complaint reports for those facilities.
"We're trying to put up as much information as we have," said DSS spokeswoman Lizelda Lopez.
Lopez said confidential information must be deleted from inspection reports before they can be posted online.
Porter said the same thing about politicians' financial reports, noting that some contain officials' home addresses.
Collecting financial disclosure reports using an online form would make removing information easy, Francke said.
The Governor's Office apparently agrees that it's possible to remove sensitive information.
Earlier this month, the governor posted financial disclosure reports online for his Cabinet and other high-ranking officials. The move came following the resignation of State and Consumer Services chief Rosario Marin, who quit when the Los Angeles Times used a paper copy of her financial disclosure reports to show she was paid to give speeches to drug companies.
As for child inspection reports, other states have gotten around the privacy issue by posting searchable databases that simply state the number and nature of safety violations for each facility.
Some California entities post information online, but don't make it easy to get to, or fail to label it clearly.
The California Department of Public Health, for example, has a lot of clearly labeled, easily accessible data on its Web site. But one of its most important data sets – a searchable database of nursing home citations and violations – takes multiple clicks to reach, and you have to know some obscure things just to find it.
First, users have to click a tab labeled "Health Information." That makes sense.
But then they have to deduce that the next link they need to click is "Health Facilities Consumer Information System."
Then they have to click a third link asking them if they want to find a facility.
Then they have to click another link labeled "Skilled Nursing Facility."
Only deep in the fine print along the way is it clear that a user is headed toward a report on the nursing home's safety record rather than just a facility's name and address. Yet, if the steps are followed, the end result is a comprehensive listing of problems found at every nursing home in the state.
The journalists who performed the Sunshine Week survey didn't find their way there until guided by public health officials, who said the information only recently went online.
Posting inspection reports of all sorts in an easy-to-find location online benefits everyone, including the facilities being inspected, Francke said. Otherwise, unofficial sites pop up to fill the demand, offering users the chance to rate their doctors or day care. The result, generally, is less reliable information.
As the government prepares to raise taxes, a lack of information about how tax money is spent will breed cynicism, said Leno, the state senator.
He still thinks there is a need for mandates forcing state agencies to post certain information online. But after two vetoes, Leno is going to bide his time.
"We have not brought the Public Records Act into the 21st century," he said. "So I look forward to introducing this again once we have elected a new governor."
Los Angeles Times
Sunshine Week...Readers' Representative Journal...A Conservation on Newsroom Practices and Standards
The American public increasingly finds its federal government secretive, according to a study conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University. In 2006, 62% of the adults surveyed believed the federal government was very or somewhat secretive; in 2008, the figure has gone up to 74%.
That means more people than ever should be interested in Sunshine Week, March 16-22. The concept behind the name and the group is the idea that, as the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis put it, "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants” -- that a bright light shed on government and on others who hold power ultimately is what keeps a democracy clean and healthy.
Perhaps you're among the 82% of those surveyed who, the study found, want access to more information about whom lawmakers meet with each day. Or maybe you are among the quarter of adults who believe the federal government has opened your mail or monitored your telephone conversations without a federal warrant.
The survey, which was commissioned by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, also finds that 92% of Americans say that "open government is important to them in assessing candidates for state offices such as governor or attorney general."
Journalists are behind Sunshine Week, a weeklong effort to get citizens thinking and talking about their year-round right to know what the government is doing, and why.
A number of other U.S. organizations, too, are dedicated to matters of open government and freedom of information. A permanent feature of the readers' representative journal (see right rail) is a link that lists just a few of those efforts. Some are run by journalists; others are coordinated by citizens who value freedom of information.
In the spirit of Sunshine Week, and your right to know, take some time to read up on our rights and who's working to keep them.
Below is the list that is permanently posted on the readers' representative journal under the heading "1st Amendment":
Groups that work to protect the 1st Amendment and keep the public informed. Descriptions are as provided by the groups.
ASNE: The American Society of Newspaper Editors is a membership organization for editors and others who serve the editorial needs of daily newspapers. (This site includes links to other newspapers’ ethics guidelines as well.)
Californians Aware: The Center for Public Forum Rights. Supporting and defending open government, an inquiring press, and a citizenry free to exchange facts and opinions.
California First Amendment Coalition: Protecting and defending the public’s right to know.
Coalition of Journalists for Open Government: A “window on open government and freedom of information.” The group’s preamble: “Information empowers and energizes a democracy. The free flow of information serves to keep the process of government honest and robust. To ensure and maintain that integrity and vitality, the public’s need to know must be recognized and the individual’s right to know must be held paramount.”
Committee of Concerned Journalists: The group has created a national conversation among journalists about principles.
First Amendment Center:
Works to preserve and protect 1st Amendment freedoms through information and education. The center serves as a forum for the study and exploration of free-expression issues, including freedom of speech, of the press and of religion, and the rights to assemble and to petition the government.
Freedom Forum: A nonpartisan, international foundation advocating free press and speech rights for all people.
Project for Excellence in Journalism: The State of the News Media: An annual report on American journalism.
Sunlight Foundation: “To use the transformative power of the Internet and new information technology to enable citizens to learn more about what Congress and their elected representatives are doing, and thus help reduce corruption, ensure greater transparency and accountability by government, and foster public trust in the vital institutions of democracy.”
(includes a page for “'insanely useful Web sites' for government transparency.”)
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press: A nonprofit organization dedicated to providing free legal assistance to journalists. The Reporters Committee also has emerged as a major national and international resource in free speech issues, disseminating information in a variety of forms.