Legal Issue: Open Government

USDOJ urged to improve tracking of deaths in custody

CalAware and 66 other advocacy groups nationwide are urging the U.S. Department of Justice to improve its monitoring of deaths in police custody. In a letter sent Monday (August 29), the organizations responded to DOJ’s proposal for implementing the Deaths in Custody Reporting Act (DICRA), which requires police departments across the country to disclose details to the federal government about custodial deaths. DICRA was signed into law in 2014 in response to a troubling lack of reliable data on these deaths ,and DOJ is currently collecting comments on its implementation proposal published August 4. Besides Californians Aware, signers include The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the ACLU, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, among many others. In their letter, the organizations list a number of deficiencies in the proposal that are a “departure” from DICRA, including a lack of accountability to ensure state and local police are actually reporting the data; a failure to condition federal funding on adequate reporting; a disturbing reliance on media reports instead of police departments for data; a lack of clarity on how DICRA applies to federal agencies; and the absence of a clear definition of the word “custody.” The groups are especially concerned about the lack of consequences for not reporting accurate data because “voluntary reporting programs on police-community encounters have failed. Only 224 of the more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies reported about 444 fatal police shootings to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 2014, though we have reason to believe that annual numbers of people killed by police exceeds 1,000.” “The loopholes in these regulations are cavernous,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. […]

Charter school transparency bill faces likely veto

A bill that would place charter schools under the same transparency rules as their public counterparts faces a likely veto. AB 709 by Assembly Member Mike Gipson (D-Gardena) would put charter schools (except those on tribal reservations) under either the Brown Act or the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act—depending on whether their sponsors were local or state entities—as well as the California Public Records Act and state laws barring conflicts of interests in government and requiring the filing of public statements of economic interests by the board members and key employees. The need for such sunshine regulation, at least in some states, is suggested by an August 21 report on John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” program. The bill got a final vote of approval Wednesday (August 24) and is now headed for the Governor’s desk. It may well die there as did a similar measure last year, because Governor Brown, as mayor of Oakland, founded two charter schools there and, according to columnist Dan Walters, has “placed $20 million in ‘startup funds’ for new charters in his 2016-17 budget.”

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.

Huge loan to agency manager in closed session

The governing board of one of California’s largest public agencies wholesaling water to local authorities gave a principal manager a $1.4 million low interest loan in a closed session, the Associated Press reports, despite the Brown Act’s requirement that the compensation of non-union “unrepresented” employees must be approved by final action in open session. According to the AP story by Ellen Knickmeyer, the 2007 loan by the Fresno-based Westlands Water District has never been repaid, its principal and interest have now grown to $1.57 million and the recipient, then Chief Deputy General Manager Jason Peltier, has moved on to head the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority in Los Banos, without mentioning the loan in his state-mandated financial interest disclosures until recently. The board never announced the loan at the time, or even discussed it publicly. Chief Operating Officer Dan Pope told the AP that it never went on the public record because the board approved it in closed session. The Brown Act provides, in Government Code section 54957.6 (a): Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a legislative body of a local agency may hold closed sessions with the local agency’s designated representatives regarding the salaries, salary schedules, or compensation paid in the form of fringe benefits of its represented and unrepresented employees . . . Closed sessions held pursuant to this section shall not include final action on the proposed compensation of one or more unrepresented employees.  

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 […]

Bill to Bring Sunshine to Local Agency Contracting

A bill soon to be considered in a final hearing in the Assembly Appropriations Committee would mean that local agencies that have enacted COIN ordinances (to provide more transparency to its bargaining with employee unions) would be required to enact similar sunshine provisions for its  negotiations with private goods or services contractors. COIN-adopting agencies so far include the City of Costa Mesa the cities of Fullerton and Beverly Hills, Orange County and the East Bay Municipal Utility District. Costa Mesa, the first to adopt a COIN ordinance, did so out of concern for unfunded public employee pension obligations. The “Labor Strikes Back” parity provisions in SB 331 by Senator Tony Mendoza (D-Montebello), dubbed The “Civic Reporting Openness in Negotiations Efficiency Act,” or CRONEY, would apply to the negotiation of any contracts with private persons or entities worth at least $50,000 as well as any series of contracts with a cumulative worth of that amount within the fiscal year of a city, county, city and county, or special district. For those agencies it would apply to contracts for services in the areas of accounting, financing, hardware and software maintenance, healthcare, human resources, human services, information technology, telecommunications, janitorial maintenance, legal services, lobbying, marketing, office equipment maintenance, passenger vehicle maintenance, property leasing, public relations, public safety, social services, transportation, or waste removal. The applicable contract negotiations would be governed by the following rules, in the language of the bill. The city, county, city and county, or special district shall designate an unbiased independent auditor to review the cost of any proposed contract. The independent auditor shall prepare a report on the cost of the contract and provide the report to all parties and make it available to […]

Senate Resistance to Sunshine Clashes with Public Poll

A Sacramento judge tentatively ruled last week that the state Senate must provide the press and public with copies of the appointment calendars and travel schedules of two former state senators now under indictment on charges of public corruption. The ruling rejected arguments by the Senate’s lawyers that the records were exempt from disclosure under the Legislative Open Records Act (LORA). That transparency law is far shorter and more general than its counterpart governing access to executive branch and local government files, the California Public Records Act (CPRA). LORA comprises only 11 exemptions: • “Preliminary drafts, notes, or legislative memoranda”“Records pertaining to pending litigation” • “Personnel, medical, or similar files, the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” • “(T)he names and phone numbers of senders and recipients of telephone and telegraph communications” • “(T)he name and location of recipients of automotive fuel or lubricants expenditures” • “(Records) in the custody of or maintained by the Legislative Counsel” • “In the custody of or maintained by the majority and minority caucuses and majority and minority consultants of each house” • “Correspondence of and to individual Members of the Legislature and their staff” • “Records the disclosure of which is exempted or prohibited pursuant to provisions of federal or state law, including, but not limited to, provisions of the Evidence Code relating to privilege” • “Communications from private citizens to the Legislature” • “Records of complaints to or investigations conducted by, or records of security procedures” Despite the arguments of the Senate’s lawyer on Friday in reacting to the tentative ruling, there is no provision stated or implied in these exemptions for scheduling disclosures that might be used to compromise lawmakers’ safety.  […]

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

UC student government can exclude students

OPEN MEETINGS UCLA student council will limit access to a meeting dealing with a divestment/boycott resolution against Israel—because it can PUBLIC INFORMATION Cal Poly SLO journalism prof sues his employer for access to records showing the campus’s infectious disease preparedness National media groups supporting a suit challenging serious delays in public access to civil case filings in Ventura Superior Court FREE SPEECH Court: Google has a publisher’s First Amendment right to arrange search results as it pleases, including rankings of competitors  

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