Awareness Area: Government

Online performance data of hospitals, nursing homes

PUBLIC INFORMATION Harmful, sometimes fatal hospital errors and infections in California now disclosed by NBC Bay Area investigative report online Real owners of California’s nursing homes and how the big chains perform revealed by Sacramento Bee investigative series online Police policy of allowing access to reports of only the most recent crimes going to Court of Appeal on December 11 Senate Judiciary Committee gives unanimous, bipartisan approval to FOIA Improvement Act; now on to full Senate vote OPEN GOVERNMENT Feinstein drops ag-favoring water allocation bill secretly negotiated with Republicans and criticized by excluded stakeholders

FOIA improvement, Brown Act ruling, mayor’s promises

PUBLIC INFORMATION U.S. Senate’s Judiciary Committee today takes up the Freedom of Information Improvement Act, already passed by the House OPEN MEETINGS Judge rules that Monterey County Supervisors’ frequent closed door evaluations of top management did not violate the Brown Act OPEN GOVERNMENT Comment: After eight months, San Diego’s new mayor slow to live up to his campaign promises to improve the city’s transparency

State Bar, CalTech Face Whistleblower Suits

WHISTLEBLOWERS Whistleblower suits claim retaliation for accusing colleagues of altering records at the State Bar, spying for Israel at CalTech FREE SPEECH Hearing set in suit against West Covina School District for barring first grader from handing out candy canes mentioning Jesus OPEN MEETINGS Little Hoover Commission reports recent roundtable discussion of needed flexibility in Brown Act, Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act

State’s high court lets secrecy rulings stand

OPEN GOVERNMENT State Supreme Court lets stand ruling that L. A. teachers’ names needn’t be disclosed in connection with performance ratings State Supreme Court lets stand ruling that S.F. Sunshine Ordinance can’t force release of city attorney’s open government opinions FREE SPEECH Report: Young men accused of crimes are having the gangsta rap lyrics they write and perform used as evidence of their guilt Comment: Why California’s ban on handgun images in outdoor signage violates the First Amendment protection for commercial speech

Second and Third Thoughts about the Free Speech Movement

At its 50th Anniversary, the Free Speech Movement at U.C. Berkeley has become a nostalgia brand easily invoked to mask how intolerant the student body, like those in so many other prestigious ivory towers, can be of speech it finds intolerable, says one of the FSM veterans. On the brighter side, the latest annual survey by the Knight Foundation shows, for the first time in its 10-year history, young people generally more supportive of the First Amendment than their teachers. Another survey by the First Amendment Center shows that Americans generally are increasingly supportive of students’ rights to speak and report as much as anyone else. A strong majority of Americans believe that high school students should be able to exercise their First Amendment rights just as adults do. The percentage of those who support this statement increased over the past year from 75% to 78%, while the percentage of those who disagree with this statement decreased from 23% to 19%. In addition, A growing majority of Americans (68%) agree that public school students should be allowed to report on controversial issues in their student newspapers without the approval of school authorities, while only 27% disagreed. When the question was first asked in 2001, Americans were almost evenly split on the issue and those who strongly disagreed with the statement dominated the response. We see a large change from 2001 through 2007 and into 2014 . . . As some evidence of how the tide may be turning, a developing controversy in the Boulder, Colorado public schools shows student dissent erupting to challenge proposals for change in a college advance placement history curriculum, which the school board majority wants to “present positive aspects of the […]

His Reporting Made the Case for the Brown Act

Michael Harris, age 92, died in Chevy Chase, MD on Thursday, but his career was Californian through and through. Equally with Assemblyman Ralph M. Brown and Bud Carpenter of the League of California Cities, he’s to be credited with getting the state legislature to enact the nation’s first omnibus local government open meeting law. He wrote its lead, so to speak, as well—the work of an afternoon, we’re told, with Carpenter sitting across the table, drafting the legal specifics. For Carpenter and the League, the main problem to be solved was not that there was no law requiring open meetings of local government bodies; it was that there were too many, each written to govern specific types of agencies—cities, counties, school and special district boards of various jurisdictions. How could a citizen keep track of all the variously shaded requirements? Harris described that patchwork at the opening of his 10-part series in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Your Secret Government.” But the series also went on to describe how the few generally worded rules that were in place were too routinely evaded by circumlocution or just simply ignored, because there was no uniform remedy and no serious consequence for violation. The series, written when Harris was a young veteran of World War II with only two years on the Chronicle’s reporting staff, still makes fascinating reading, since it shows an era so blithely indifferent to transparency principles that have come to win at least lip service as fundamentals of today’s politics. It also shows what the scene would be like today without the criminal penalty that so many have pooh-poohed as toothless.

Air Marshal Whistleblower Case Goes to High Court

Robert MacLean of Ladera Ranch in Orange County was fired from his Air Marshal job with the Transportation Security Agency in 2003 for disclosing to the press that the TSA planned to discontinue assigning marshals to overnight flights from Las Vegas to save money, despite an airline hijack alert which prompted higher security concerns at the time. He appealed his firing as illegal under the Whistleblower Protection Act, and while the trial court ruled against him, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit unanimously agreed he had a case, despite the government’s argument that such a precedent would encourage leaks that could threaten lives. But it has been a hard road for MacLean, as Teri Sforza reports for the Orange County Register. His case finally goes before the U.S. Supreme Court next month and, reports Jacob Gershman for the Wall Street Journal, lawmakers in both Houses of Congress and both parties are saying the viability of the WPA is at stake if the Court rules that the government can fire its employees for revealing anything that it pronounces—before or after the whistle is blown—as “sensitive” national security information.   

Major National Media Smear One of Their Own

A fact-based movie thriller to be released soon, “Kill the Messenger,” tells the story of Gary Webb, the investigative journalist whom the CIA found it easy to discredit when his series in the San Jose Mercury News, “Dark Alliance,” threatened an explosive national security scandal. The series accused the CIA of looking the other way when Nicaraguan Contras, its Reagan era clients, used the profits of crack cocaine smuggling that flooded the streets of Los Angeles to support their guerrilla war against the Sandinistas. It was easy to discredit Webb, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, because the country’s leading newspapers were receptive to CIA denials at the time. And they were receptive to those denials because they could not believe they had been beaten to such a major exposé by a second-tier newspaper, but even more because a reputation for responsibility in the eyes of the intelligence “community” had become more precious to them than the credibility and integrity of a fearless reporter. They didn’t just disagree with him; they destroyed his career, and he committed suicide. Georg Hodel remembers.

CalAware Sues College Board under Brown Act

As noted by Jason Song in his report for the Los Angeles Times, Californians Aware filed suit Thursday against the board of the Pasadena Area Community College District, seeking a court-ordered reversal of a recent board-approved $400,000 severance award to its retiring superintendent, Dr. Mark Rocha. CalAware argues in its petition that the approval was hatched in two closed sessions labeled as dealing with “anticipated litigation” without explaining what litigation was anticipated, or why, or who the potential plaintiff was. The board’s attorney calls the $400,000 a “settlement and release of claims,” without revealing what the claims were. CalAware argues the closed sessions were about compensation beyond the amount Dr. Rocha was entitled to under his contract, and that the closed session agendas were misleadingly worded to avoid public awareness of the planned award.

Governor Vetoes Protections for Citizen Speech

Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. today vetoed a bill that would have ended officials’ power to frustrate citizens’ efforts to address local councils, boards, commissions and advisory bodies.  In his veto message, the Governor misstated both the nature of the bill and its impact on meetings under the Brown Act: “This bill adds certain procedures to the Brown Act, which at best will enlongate but in no way enhance the quality of debate at the local level.” But AB 194 by Assembly Member Nora Campos (D-San Jose) added no procedures to the law.  Instead, it prohibited certain all-too-frequent practices by local bodies such as: using up the allotted time for disfavored citizen speakers by interrupting and challenging their comments, forcing citizens to voice their comments on agenda items at the beginning of meetings before the body has heard staff’s presentation of  those items, forbidding citizens from criticizing the actions of staff officials, or treating speakers with more or less accommodation depending on what they have to say. Likewise, nothing in the bill would have “elongated” the meetings, since it left intact the Brown Act rule that local bodies retain full authority to determine the time limits for individual speakers or for comment on particular topics.  That distortion echoes the objection of the principal opponent of the bill, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, who wrote a personally signed letter voicing that argument when it looked like the bill might reach the Governor. Interestingly, the Board’s meeting minutes for the last year contain no reference to a discussion of or decision to oppose the bill, suggesting that it was reached outside an open and public meeting.  But the Board and the Governor showed a common […]