By Anne Lowe

After an audit of six regional nonprofit centers caring for the developmentally disabled last year found that the Department of Developmental Services provides too little oversight into the centers’ operations, some are calling for more transparency for these private centers.

A Sacramento Bee report revealed that Benson House, which provides a myriad of services to the disabled, paid its president over $800,000 in 2008 in leases and salary. Because organizations such as Benson House are private entities, the Public Records Act and other laws aimed at government transparency do not apply to them despite the fact they are funded with public money.

As an editorial in the Long Beach Press-Telegram noted,

Officials from Inland Regional Center, the largest in the state, told The Bee's Jack Chang that they do not review corporate governance or compensation issues for Benson House or any of the center's other vendors. Their focus is on quality of care and other service matters.

That's unacceptable.

While quality of care is important, no entity that spends state money - especially in these hard times - can afford to ignore bloated salaries, self-dealing and nepotism, all problems documented at Benson House.

As the state auditor has recommended, the Department of Developmental Services should provide more oversight and more guidance to regional centers on rate setting, vendor selection and procurement - but that alone won't be enough.

To ensure transparency and accountability the centers also should be subject to the California Public Records Act, just as government agencies are. Also, strong whistleblower protections are needed, not just for employees but for vendors and the families of the disabled who are in the best position to know and report problems.

Despite some serious lapses, in general the regional center system has worked well to provide high-quality services to the developmentally disabled in California. Dominated by disabled clients' families and vendors, regional center boards have shown themselves to be more flexible and responsive than the governmental agencies they replaced.

Still, fiscal abuses like those documented by state auditors and The Bee threaten the good work these centers do. To protect themselves and their clients, regional centers need to embrace reform.