Open Up, Arnold
It’s time for the governor to honor his pledge for a more-open government.
Thursday, March 20, 2008
It is important to remember that in his 2003 campaign, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pledged “to throw open the doors and windows of government,” commenting in one speech, “There’s no such thing as democracy in the dark.”
His “open government reform plan” included a commitment to add the Legislature (which had exempted itself) to a constitutional amendment mandating open government records and meetings of official bodies. But that commitment was quietly dropped.
The governor also takes credit for giving the media access to his appointment calendars, but his office began to provide them – in edited form – only when it appeared that a lawsuit for them might be in the offing.
More typically, last fall the governor vetoed a modest bill – AB 1393, which Californians Aware sponsored – that would have allowed citizens to file public records access requests on every state agency’s website.
His veto message stated, “Ensuring access to public information is one of my top priorities. That is why last year I issued Executive Order S-03-06, requiring all state agencies to review their guidelines governing access to public information.”
Schwarzenegger neglected to mention that his executive order was issued only 15 days after Californians Aware released results of its executive branch audit showing that the average score among 31 key state agencies was only 37 percent compliance with basic, undisputed requirements of the California Public Records Act.
“THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS DEMOCRACY IN THE DARK.”
All in all, then, contrary to his stated commitment, Gov. Schwarzenegger has not been a champion of openness. He has not shown leadership in this area and has, in fact, consistently vetoed open-government legislation.
If the governor wished to have a lasting and positive legacy in California history despite the budgetary and greater economic constraints, he could sponsor a bill creating a state open government commission.
On Californians Aware’s website over the past year an admittedly unscientific open-ended survey has been indicating overwhelming dissatisfaction with the current situation, in which “enforcement of the open meetings and public records laws is now almost entirely left up to private lawsuits.” There are 334 responses as of this writing, more than two thirds of which agree that there needs to be some public office or officer authorized “to investigate complaints, order correction of violations, and provide training.” Of these, about 26 percent preferred “a statewide commission” as the enforcer.
There is one clear precedent for a statewide body of the kind described in the survey. The Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, appointed by then-Gov. Ella Grasso in 1975, has five members, a staff of 20, and recurring operating expenses last year of $1.7 million – lean and mean by anyone’s measure.
On the enforcement side, the FOI Commission hears complaints from those denied access to meetings or records of public agencies, holds hearings on the complaints and then either can dismiss the complaint, order release of a record or nullification of a meeting action, or assign the matter to mediation with a commission staff attorney acting as ombudsman.
On the training and education side, the commission conducts workshops and speaking engagements for public agencies statewide. Much more information is provided at the commission’s website: state.ct.us/foi.
Schwarzenegger would not need to sponsor such legislation; it would be enough if he would sign it. But if he really meant what he said when, during the recall campaign, he became the first gubernatorial candidate in California’s history to make open government a plank in his platform, this is one achievement with which his name always would be linked, with gratitude.