Vote to take the secrecy out of California government

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A special editorial by Anthony Portantino, Democratic Candidate for the California State Senate, 25th District:

One reason many people trust their local city council members to make decisions that affect their lives and property, while finding it difficult to feel the same way about the California Legislature, comes down to the basics of transparency and accountability. Residents can easily follow what their local leaders are up to because city councils are required to abide by the Ralph M. Brown Act. 

The Brown Act requires all decisions by a council to be based on an agenda publically posted at least three days prior to the meeting at which that issue is discussed and action is taken at that public meeting. In effect, because the press and residents have a minimum of three days to review impending decisions, most business cannot be conducted secretly or behind closed doors. 

Unfortunately, when the Legislature created this good-government mandate for cities and school districts, it did not include itself in the same law. The result is just what you might expect: Bills and proposals frequently show up at the last minute (sometimes literally in the dead of night) without public review or notice. ll too often, they are passed and become law without any public scrutiny or input. It should surprise no one that this lack of review can easily lead to bad laws and unintended consequences.

Further increasing transparency on the local level but hindering it in Sacramento is a specific prohibition on the public use of images and sounds of state legislative proceedings and votes to hold a lawmaker accountable for his or her actions during political campaigns. While citizens can get a copy of a city council meeting and re-post that meeting on Facebook or YouTube for the purpose of advocating for or against the re-election of that councilmember, they cannot do the same with images, videos or soundtracks captured from legislative meetings. To do so is actually a criminal offense.  

That’s right — outside of the local news coverage, legislative video of votes or speeches cannot be used in a political campaign. 

Most cities go even farther. They archive and post their meetings on their websites, and many put copies of city meetings in their local libraries. But in the California capital, while some proceedings are recorded, many are not. And even those that are recorded cannot be heard or exhibited by the public as a campaign tool. In effect, they are not treated as the public record for the public’s use.

This lack of transparency is addressed by Proposition 54 on the Nov. 8 California ballot, which requires that the text all legislative bills be posted online for 72 hours before they can be voted on. No longer will a last-minute amendment show up out of thin air and become law 15 minutes later without public scrutiny or review.

If all that Prop. 54 did was to prevent these late-night policy “jam jobs” from passing without proper and appropriate vetting, that would be more than enough reason enough to vote yes. But Prop. 54 also takes another huge step toward full transparency: It requires each legislative house to make its proceedings available online for 20 years. And it ends the ban on using footage from legislative proceedings for accountability purposes. 

On Nov. 8, voters will have a rare opportunity to open up the doors and let the sun shine in on the legislative process. Both Prop. 54 and the Brown Act have appropriate exemptions for emergency actions. So the only impact of making this important reform will be to end the double standard and bring the legislature in line with the sensible transparency and accountability measures it already mandates for local cities.

Voters should seize this chance to help create a more transparent and accountable legislature. Vote yes on Prop. 54.

This editorial appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.

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