The Freedom of Information Act, authored by Sacramento’s own Congressman John E. Moss, (left) was signed by President Lyndon Johnson on July 4, 1966. It took more than a decade to get the legislation to LBJ’s desk, and it originated from Congress’s own frustation at being denied Executive Branch information. By the time it came to be signed, the nation was in a state of war far more literal and agonizing than any GWOT today, and the President had domestic ambitions—the War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Act—at least as controversial and hard-fought as today’s Affordable Care Act. But the momentum that Congressman Moss had quietly built, with the awakening support of the press, left FOIA as, in the words of another great legislative leader of the day, “an idea whose time had come.” Jelani Cobb in this week’s New Yorker blog reminds us of that unlikely—and at the time little celebrated—gift of the strife-torn Sixties.
Busy as we are, it can be hard to pause and appreciate just how profoundly the Bill of Rights landscape and even the structural tension of our government has changed in the last dozen years or so. Here’s one summing-up that’s worth letting sink in. “Almost 13 years after the 9/11 attacks, it remains ‘wartime,’”writes investigative journalist Peter Van Buren. For the war on terror, the driver, excuse, and raison d’être for the tattering of the Bill of Rights, there is no end in sight. Recently retired NSA head Keith Alexander is typical of key figures in the national security state when he claims that despite, well, everything, the country is at greater risk today than ever before. These days, wartime is forever, which means that a government working ever more in secret has ever more latitude to decide which rights in which form applied in what manner are still inalienable.
Update by Richard Knee The San Francisco Board of Supervisors Rules Committee voted Thursday to recommend to the full board six appointments to the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, and to defer action on two applications, thus ending the standoff reported here. Public participation in this matter won the day on Thursday; committee members finally got the message that there is growing public awareness of the difficulties that long-time vacancies have created for the task force and for people wanting access to public meetings and records, access to which they’re entitled under law. We can hope that the full board will see the light next Tuesday. The Rules-recommended appointments: Seat #1 (attorney nominated by Society of Professional Journalists), Mark Rumold, who works with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Seat #2 (SPJ-nominated journalist), award-winning freelancer Ali Winston. Seat #3, journalist and videographer Josh Wolf. Seat #5 (League of Women voters nominee), incumbent Allyson Washburn. Seat #7, Lee Anthony Hepner, an attorney experienced in litigation, mediation, arbitration and intellectual-property matters. Seat #9, incumbent Chris Hyland The committee deferred action on two appointments: Seat #4 (journalist nominated by New America Media), Rishi Chopra. Seat #11, for which incumbent Bruce Oka and former task force member Bruce Wolfe are applying. Both have physical disabilities, so the mandate that the task force at all time have at least one person with a physical disability will be met. And both have served admirably. Until the appointment is made, Oka remains on the task force as a “holdover.” The board voted last month to appoint incumbents Todd David, Louise Fischer and David Pilpel. So it is reasonable to guess that within the next few weeks, at least 10 of the 11 task force seats […]
While the Secretary of State’s unofficial vote tally Tuesday showed a passage rate of 61.5 percent statewide for Proposition 42, the open government constitutional amendment, a closer look at the county by county numbers shows that metropolitan and suburban counties closer to the coast were largely responsible for the measure’s passage, while rural counties in the state’s interior mostly rejected it. County support for passage ranged from San Francisco’s 71.3 percent to Modoc’s 37.4. The statewide acceptance rate of 61.5 percent lagged the 65.4 percent support for the only other ballot measure, Proposition 41, the authorization of $600 million in general obligation bonds to fund affordable multifamily housing for low-income and homeless veterans. The relatively higher support for Prop 41 was probably due in large part to a patriotic and compassionate concern for veterans and their families prompted by recent revelations of significant service delays and failures of the Veterans Administration. In contrast Prop 42 could be (and was) interpreted by many as a political shedding of state responsibility prejudicial to the most trusted level of government—the locals, and in any event a relatively abstract issue. But Proposition 42 also clearly drew less enthusiasm than Proposition 59, which first made open government a state constitutional right 10 years ago when passed by more than 83 percent of voters. In that election, the Yes counties ranged from Santa Cruz (88.2 percent) to Kings (75.6 percent), and 49 of the 58 counties gave the measure 80 percent support or more. One conclusion is that the size of the turnout can make a big difference. In 2004, the ballot included not only state legislative and Congressional seats, but a U.S. Senator, the President, and 16 ballot measures, and […]
Guest Report and Comment by Richard Knee San Francisco’s open-government laws are regarded by some as among the nation’s strongest. But some people in City Hall are doing their best to keep the city’s Sunshine Ordinance and the 11-member panel that monitors its effectiveness as weak as possible. The ordinance was drafted by Terry Francke, then executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, in 1993. Bruce B. Brugmann, editor and publisher of the San Francisco Bay Guardian news weekly, shepherded the ordinance through City Hall, where it was predictably watered down and then enacted by the Board of Supervisors late that year, taking effect in 1994. Both as a journalist and as one of the original members of the monitoring panel, called the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, Brugmann quickly saw that the ordinance was too easily skirted, so he led a fight to have it strengthened. The result was a November 1999 ballot initiative that city voters approved, 58 percent to 42 percent. Francke is now general counsel of Californians Aware, the First Amendment Coalition has dropped California from its name, and Brugmann retired after selling the Bay Guardian to the SF Newspaper Co., which also owns the archrival SF Weekly as well as the daily San Francisco Examiner. He continues to advocate sunshine and public control of electricity (“When PG&E spits, City Hall swims!”), through his Bruce Blog on the Guardian web site. The latest attack on sunshine is coming on two fronts: the process of appointing members to the task force, and an effort by City Attorney Dennis Herrera to overturn a provision in the ordinance nullifying attorney-client privacy for communications regarding local and state sunshine and political-ethics laws. Officials Use Politicized […]
The California Green Party, in announcing its opposition to Proposition 42 on next week’s ballot, uses a very blinkered rationale that ignores what made the measure necessary and exaggerates its impact on local government resources. The key phrasing of its position states: Proposition 42 would amend the state constitution to mandate local government agencies comply with various state laws providing for public access to local government meetings and records of government officials. This would apply to cities, counties, and school and community college districts, as well as park, fire, water and other special districts. Proposition 42 would also eliminate the state’s traditional responsibility to reimburse local governments for their costs to implement these laws, including certain parts of the Public Records Act – representing an annual cost shift in the tens of millions of dollars, as estimated by the California Legislative Analyst. Local governments are often on very tight budgets. They also have far fewer tools to raise revenue than the state, and the tools they do have are often more regressive than those available to the state. Transparency in government should not be dependent upon the finances or practices of any particular local government agency. Transparency should be even and guaranteed across all jurisdictions. The abdication of this in Proposition 42 is an example of what is wrong with our state’s priorities. A Wildly Exaggerated Estimate of Cost Shift First, the Legislative Analyst’s estimate of the cost impact of mandated services under the California Public Records Act—hence the cost to be shifted to local agencies—lacks credence, to put it mildly. As this space noted last year when that estimate became known as justification for halting certain CPRA requirements by making them unenforceable, The mandate […]
FREE SPEECH CalAware-supported bill adds teeth to Brown Act protection for citizens’ right to comment at local government meetings OPEN GOVERNMENT CalAware-sponsored proposal would put charter amendment on San Diego’s June ballot requiring fact-based reasons for secrecy WHISTLEBLOWERS The Dreyfus Affair’s unsung whistleblower, whose fate set the pattern for leaks threatening a national security elite FREE PRESS Appeals court setting precedent for federal courts in California rules bloggers can’t be sued for libel without proof of fault OPEN MEETINGS Monterey Supervisors’ use of frequent “performance evaluation” closed sessions to direct policy moves will get D.A.’s scrutiny
The California Judicial Council, governing body of the state court system, has shown itself reluctant to adopt a proposed rule that would open meetings of its standing and other advisory committees—where most court policy development takes place—to public phone monitoring or attendance. The Council was asked by the Legislature to report progress toward such a rule on January 1. The Legislative Analyst’s Office encouraged the Council to take the initiative when Governor Brown this fall vetoed a budget rider that would have required open advisory meetings. But, as reported by Maria Dinzeo for Courthouse News Service and lamented by the Alliance of California Judges, the Council was cool toward the recommended access rules outlined in the when it met last Thursday in San Francisco. Californians Aware commented on the first draft of the proposed rules in November but expressed encouragement that they were even being considered.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership is an international mega-trade agreement under development among the U.S. and a number of key nations of the Americas and Asia, negotiated entirely in secret and proposed to bypass close Congressional scrutiny in a “Fast Track” approach. Leaks of certain draft versions suggest that all party states would see their domestic law controlled by TPP commitments and constraints in such disparate areas (apart from trade regulation) as “food safety, internet freedom, medicine costs, financial regulation, and the environment,” as listed on Public Citizen’s opposition website. The site also notes that the terms have been worked out through “a secret trade negotiation that has included over 600 official corporate ‘trade advisors’ while hiding the text from Members of Congress, governors, state legislators, the press, civil society, and the public.” TPP’s current status worries a Forbes contributor because even the Fast Track process may not lead to Congressional buy-in before 2015—an election year when play-it-safe political instincts will rule, while TPP’s threats to American public interests are spelled out by the Electronic Freedom Foundation, which provides a quick form for opposition statements to be sent to California’s Senators and Members of Congress.
by Warner Chabot This November, the California Coastal Commission listened to advice from Californians Aware and backed down on a controversial proposal to micromanage their senior staff. The twelve-member commission, appointed by state administration and legislative leaders, acts as a land use “planning commission” for the coastal zone of California. In the interest of “accountability” and “transparency,” the commission has been debating how their Executive Director should produce metrics and performance updates to demonstrate progress on implementing the Commission’s recently adopted Strategic Plan. The question was the level of detail (metrics) to require for these updates. The problem, in the eyes of many past Commissioners and NGO leaders, was that some commissioners were seeking a level of metrics that would constitute excessive micromanagement of staff. The Commission took an hour of public testimony before deliberating for another hour on the subject. The public testimony was unanimous in its praise of the staff’s professionalism and transparency and in expressing a concern that the commission should not attempt to micromanage the staff. They commissioners concluded by adopting the recommendation of their Executive Director for a “dashboard” reporting system that would be used in his monthly reports. Among the materials presented to the Commission was a letter from Californians Aware, which praised the Commission staff’s accountability and transparency based on several audits over a multi-year period. Outcome: Unanimous vote to approve the “dashboard” system proposed by the Executive Director to report on Strategic Plan progress. The Commission reaffirmed their respect for staff independence and professionalism. They rejected an option to require an excessive level of time-consuming monitoring and reporting that would have diverted staff from its core work. For More information: This issue generated major interest among past […]