Awareness Area: Politics

Lawsuit attacks trashing of politician’s records

Who do an elected official’s office records belong to? A lawsuit in Los Angeles may settle this still open question. The Los Angeles Times reports that the alleged wholesale removal and/or destruction last year of office files accumulated over the 14 year incumbency of a departing member of the Los Angeles City Council has prompted a lawsuit. Earlier this year FAC made a public records request to the city for three categories of records in which former Councilman Tom La Bonge had been involved—the Department of Water and Power, the California Film Commission, and a proposed housing development in Sherman Oaks— but was told they could not be found. The FAC lawsuit seeks a judicial order to the city to conduct a thorough search for the records and to begin complying with Government Code Section 34090. requiring cities to retain all records for at least two years. Records removal and destruction can be prosecuted as a crime. California Government Code Section 6200 states: Every officer having the custody of any record, map, or book, or of any paper or proceeding of any court, filed or deposited in any public office, or placed in his or her hands for any purpose, is punishable by imprisonment . . . for two, three, or four years if, as to the whole or any part of the record, map, book, paper, or proceeding, the officer willfully does or permits any other person to do any of the following: (a) Steal, remove, or secrete.   (b) Destroy, mutilate, or deface.   (c) Alter or falsify. Violations of this law are very rarely prosecuted, possibly because by the time district attorneys discover the statute, they have themselves trashed official records. For example, former […]

Recording legislators in action—or in revolt

The sit-in demonstration by House Democrats this past week, attempting to force a vote on a relatively modest gun measure (denying sales to those on the federal no-fly list) became visible and audible to the world, thanks to several members’ video-capable smartphones and internet posting software—despite Speaker Paul Ryan’s ordered shutdown of live C-SPAN coverage. As noted in a Sacramento Bee editorial, technology, and especially social media applications and impulses, have thus ended Congressional leaders’ traditional blackout power over how much the public is allowed to see and hear of what its representatives say and do. Turning the video cameras off at certain key points or restricting what they are permitted to focus on—by order of the leadership—is likewise not unknown in the California Legislature. That fact has led the authors of the initiative ballot measure called the California Legislature Transparency Act to propose amending the state constitution to give spectators in any open committee or house proceeding the right to make and share, as widely and as soon as they please, their own video and/or audio recordings of anything they can see or hear. The Act’s language, expected momentarily to be placed on the November ballot, includes the following provision: The proceedings of each house and the committees thereof shall be open and public. The right to attend open and public proceedings includes the right of any person to record by audio or video means any and all parts of he proceedings and to broadcast or otherwise transmit them; provided that the Legislature may adopt reasonable rules . . .regulating the placement and use of the equipment for recording or broadcasting the proceedings for the sole purpose of minimizing disruption of the proceedings. Any […]

Democrats pursue “transparency lite” strategy

Nervous that voters in November might pass a widely endorsed ballot measure to end eleventh hour surprise legislation in Sacramento, the Democrat majorities in the Senate and Assembly are working on a tamer competing measure they hope will get more votes. Were it to get the most votes, the citizen initiative-launched California Legislature Transparency Act (CLTA) would not only put a three-day reaction pause (the same as in the Brown Act’s rule for local government agency action) between a proposal’s committee-approved form and its floor vote in either the full Assembly or Senate. It would also:  require all legislative hearings and floor sessions to be video-recorded, made promptly accessible on the internet, and archived for 20 years; and  give any citizen spectators in these sessions the right to make their own videos of whatever they can see or hear, and share or publish them as they please, the same as in the Brown Act. Moreover, the CLTA would become part of the state constitution, and as such could only be amended or repealed by a vote of the people. Four reform bills seeking the 72-hour delay before a vote in either house have been introduced in the last four years—three by Republicans and one by the author of the current Democrat transparency measure. Not one was even assigned to a committee, much less given a hearing. In reaction to the Democrats’ recent rush to adopt their own ballot measure, editorials in the Orange County Register, the Los Angeles Daily News and the San Francisco Chronicle are crying foul.

Governor vetoes military surplus transparency

Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. has vetoed AB 36 by Assembly Member Nora Campos (D-San Jose), which would have required local agency governing bodies with authority over law enforcement agencies to approve in an open session acquisition of federal surplus military equipment.  The veto message reads in part: Transparency is important between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve, but it must be tempered by security considerations before revealing law enforcement equipment shortages in a public hearing.  This bill fails to strike the proper balance. Moreover the bill is unnecessary, as President Obama’s Executive Order 13688 will implement a similar requirement for governing bodies to grant approval of surplus military equipment. The particular requirement Brown refers to states that, as one of many criteria to be fulfilled as part of the application process, law enforcement agencies must provide “evidence of civilian governing body’s review and approval or concurrence of the (law enforcement agency’s) acquisition of the requested . . . equipment.”  Such a review and approval or concurrence could be accomplished, under the Brown Act, only at an open and public meeting.  The Executive Order thus fails to strike what the Governor believes to be “the proper balance” between transparency and “security considerations” much more clearly than AB 36. Campos briefly amended her bill at the last moment to allow local bodies to discuss their departments’ application for equipment in closed session—and keep the shopping list secret—but then quickly withdrew that provision when CalAware, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and at least two major newspapers attacked it.  It may be that another consideration in the about-face was that satisfying Executive Order 13688’s application process would have been next to impossible given the secrecy authorized […]

Our right to know who funds what politics

Bob Stern, godfather of the 41-year-old effort to expose and reduce the corrosive role of money in politics, is working with others to offer California voters their best chance to limit the damage of Citizens United by preventing hyper-wealthy campaign donors—many from out of state— from hiding their identities behind nonprofits. Stern, among many other civic-minded roles the secretary-treasurer of Californians Aware, a year ago professed his open disappointment with Governor Jerry Brown’s indifference to contemporary efforts at political reform.  Now Stern has reported to friends and colleagues recently: I wanted to update you on a new statewide ballot initiative that I helped write, which amends the Political Reform Act of 1974 (Prop. 9, which passed by 70% of the voters).  I co-authored that original measure while working for then Secretary of State Jerry Brown.   On Wednesday, September 16, we filed the Voters’ Right to Know Act with the California Attorney General.  I’m providing a copy of the submitted language and a link to our web site. We’ve gotten good coverage on NPR and in the Washington Post  and  the Sacramento Bee. We expect a Title and Summary from the Attorney General sometime in October and then will begin gathering signatures to put it on the November 2016 ballot. Here is summary of the goals of the measure:     > establishing a state constitutional right to regulate the raising and spending of money to influence elections and governmental decisions, just as Californians now have a constitutional right to privacy and access to open records and public meetings.     > enacting tough provisions to ensure that dark money (undisclosed contributions) are revealed by campaigns in a timely manner;     > enhancing and updating the Secretary of State’s website […]

Public records show how government really works

By Tim Crews Reprinted with permission, The Sacramento Bee   “No, you can’t see it.” That refrain is what people unaccustomed to using the California Public Records Act are likely to get from most city, county and state government officials. That’s a shame, because there was a time when officials were more or less open about the people’s files. Al Calonico, a former city manager of Orland in Glenn County, told me 26 years ago, “These are the files. Just put everything back where you found it.” The only thing segregated and locked was one drawer of personnel files. That would be inconceivable today. The Public Records Act helps the average citizen and journalist – I count myself as both – discover how government really works. However, sometimes it takes patience, prodding and a willingness to go to court. I have used the act to find how much public money is being spent on political campaigns, including school district spending on bond issues, which is against the law. Fragments of documents from the Glenn County Office of Education led us at The Valley Mirror to believe that public money was used for Willows Unified School District election matters, a violation of law. We asked for a year’s worth of their emails. They refused. They withheld. They stalled. We sued. A local judge ruled for the school district. On appeal, we prevailed. Writing for a unanimous three-justice panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento, Justice Andrea Hoch said the appellate record “shows Crews’ request was based on his decision to engage in a journalistic investigation of whether (former Willows Unified School District Superintendent Steve) Olmos or the district misused public property.” The appeals […]

Feinstein’s U.C. Regent husband drops her name as a threat

A U.C. Irvine student worker union leader explains why there’s no Israel-bashing exception to the First Amendment, despite U.C.’s new Unfree Speech Movement. But as Glenn Greenwald notes, Regent Richard Blum wants the university to adopt a policy identifying unfair criticism of Israel as directed at Jews per se, and wants students found guilty of it disciplined—or expelled. In doing so, he bluntly warns that if such steps are not taken his wife, Senator Dianne Feinstein, will use her formidable political power to assail the university as tolerant of antisemitism.

Update: Campos Restores Transparency of Military Hardware Buys

UPDATE: THE CALIFORNIA NEWSPAPER PUBLISHERS ASSOCIATION REPORTS: “After media pressure by the Sacramento Bee and Los Angeles Times, CalAware’s blog post, and our lobbying efforts in the Assembly today, Assemblywoman Campos’s office has agreed to resend the bill to the Senate for amendments to completely remove any reference to a closed session in the bill. AB 36 will now require that acquisition of military equipment must be discussed/voted on in open session.” ORIGINAL POST: Assembly Member Nora Campos (D-San Jose) has at the last minute, and without a single public hearing, amended her AB 36 to allow city councils to deliberate in closed session on whether to pass, modify or abandon a proposed ordinance on purchase of military equipment for their police departments. The bill was originally introduced to ensure that decisions on purchase of military surplus weapons and other tactical gear would be made only by local government bodies at open meetings subject to the Brown Act.  The measure was partly in reaction to deployment of military equipment to quell restive crowds in Ferguson, Missouri last summer, and partly prompted by the public outcry of citizens questioning the Davis Police Department’s purchase of an MRAP armored truck. The department reacted by agreeing to dispose of the vehicle. August 24 author’s amendments to AB 36 have effectively neutered it not only by exempting county boards of supervisors and any other local bodies where the law enforcement agency reports directly to an elected officer, but by allowing city councils to retire into closed session to deliberate about adopting an ordinance authorizing police purchases of military hardware, with the approved shopping list kept secret. The amendment reads: A legislative body of a local agency may hold a […]

CalAware Sues L.A. Supervisors for Serial Action

Californians Aware today filed a lawsuit seeking a court declaration that the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors violated the Brown Act last August when its members privately and serially signed letters to the Legislature and the Governor opposing a bill intended to strengthen . . . the Brown Act. The petition in Californians Aware v. Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors also seeks a court order prohibiting the Board  from using a series of communications, either directly or through intermediaries, to discuss, deliberate, and take action on specific legislation, outside of a noticed and public meeting. CalAware went to court, according to General Counsel Terry Francke, only when the Board rejected its demand to publicly renounce the practice of discussing or acting on legislative issues outside of open and public meetings. County Counsel Mark Saladino takes the position that the personal signature gathering, accomplished by walking the staff-drafted letter opposing the bill from one Supervisor’s office to another, was a mere formality.  The Board’s opposition, he says, was already approved in two previous ways. First, it acted by its December 2013 adoption of a general policy platform for the 2014 legislative session which authorized staff to oppose any legislation creating an undue burden or cost on county operations, but which mentioned neither the Brown Act nor any legislation concerning it. Second, it acted by receiving with no objection a succession of memos to the Board from the executive and lobbying staff, tracking the progress of AB 194 and indicating an intention to oppose it “unless otherwise directed.”  The memos were never discussed at open meetings of the Board, which never saw any mention of AB 194 on their agendas either; instead, the  memos were posted […]

Grand juries & police; torture & accountability

Should grand juries handle police shootings? Some California lawmakers may move to take police shooting cases away from the secretive grand jury and into open hearings When torture’s no crime, but exposing it is Critic: CIA’s Bush-era torturers go free, but the CIA officer who exposed their methods has been prosecuted by Obama’s DOJ Accountable government: The devil’s in the emails Expert: Senate’s torture report relied crucially on preserved emails—often the only evidence of what was going on Court: Record’s prior release must be proved Government can’t keep a record from you that’s been shared with someone else in the public—if you can prove it was shared Court: Retaliatory firing’s motive is what counts You can sue your employer for firing you on suspicion of whistleblowing—even if you never actually blew the whistle