In Saturday’s Ventura County Star Tony Biasotti and Timm Herdt reported on the increasing influence of party politics on local government elected offices that for almost a century have been formally nonpartisan by law.  Taking races and personalities in Ventura County as examples, they pointed out what most local politicians and activists probably already know:

Both Republicans and Democrats are pushing for more control over school boards, city councils, and other local races that are officially classified as nonpartisan. It’s a top priority for leaders of both parties at the county and the state level.

The key control factor is money. Whoever gets a party central committee endorsement gets party financial support for the campaign, and that’s especially critical for the majority of first-timers who have neither a highly familiar name nor the personal fortune to create one fast.  Why are the parties more intent than ever in developing farm teams of talent for possible higher office? The authors point to the explanation given by Mike Osborn, who heads the Ventura Republican Central Committee.

Getting candidates elected to local office is always a top priority for either party, Obsorn said. With term limits forcing Sacramento legislators out of office after six years in the Assembly and eight years in the Senate, there’s a constant need for fresh talent.
    "If there weren’t term limits, you wouldn’t have anywhere near the interest in local elections that you do now," he said.

In other words, a textbook example of the unintended consequences of political reform: the hydraulic pressure for new blood at the top perturbs local politics with all the dignity and disinterested  devotion to the public interest of the Sacramento scene. And accelerating this churn is a recently signed bill to take effect in January, AB 1430, which got very heavy and bipartisan support in both Assembly and Senate, was widely supported by business interests and unions alike, and was opposed only by four good government advocates, one city ethics commission and one city councilman, plus some editorials like this one in the Sacramento Bee.

In cities where limits have been enacted on how much can be given to local office candidates by individual donors, the money is simply given to parties or labor unions, with instructions on which candidates to boost in messages to members.  When that practice recently showed signs of being headed for restriction, AB 1430 was the result, and public awareness of who’s spending what on whom also suffered. 

Here’s how the Bee editorial put it.

Consider the impact of this bill on Los Angeles, one city that has passed its own campaign finance ordinances.
    Los Angeles prohibits groups and individuals from giving more than $500 to City Council candidates and $1,000 to mayoral candidates. For years, special interests have sidestepped these limits by contributing directly to the parties, which then bombards registered voters with advertising touting one candidate or another.
    After billionaires Eli Broad and Ron Burkle tried to use these methods to elect Antonio Villaraigosa mayor in 2001, Los Angeles toughened its law by requiring political parties, unions and others to disclose within a day if they spent $1,000 or more on "member political communications," such as a mailer to support a candidate.
    AB 1430, by Assemblyman Martin Garrick, R-Solano Beach, would block such disclosure requirements, preventing voters from learning which groups are bankrolling local campaigns. Garrick, who says he introduced the bill to enhance "free speech," apparently did so to head off a San Diego campaign disclosure proposal.

But there’s another transparency issue on the horizon as well.  What happens when the majority of a city council or school board is officially and unabashedly Democrat or Republican and the pressure builds to issue partisan instructions on a particular proposal (or resistance to it)?  The Ventura piece quotes Tim Hodson, director of the Center for California Studies at CSU Sacramento, as commenting that voters in the past favored nonpartisan local elections because there’s no Democrat or Republican position on building a bridge, for example.  But another observer insists that that’s oversimplified, or at least outdated; there may be a very partisan difference of opinion “on where the bridge is built, how it’s paid for, and whether it has a carpool lane.”

In the Legislature, reaching and enforcing a party line requires caucuses, and caucuses take place in meetings that the state constitution permits behind closed doors, as an exception to the general open session rule.  The closed caucus, in fact, is the main feature distinguishing how policy-making meetings happen in Sacramento and at city hall or the school district office. 

Closed caucuses are utterly alien to the principles underlying the Brown Act, whose preamble expressly emphasizes citizen control of local government through transparency. 

The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them.  The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.  The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.

But how long will it take before the normally diverse, even adverse forces and factions that united in supporting AB 1430 decide that their ability to control local government is too awkward in the sunshine?

After all, closed (or actually secret, unannounced) caucuses could be so helpful to the "deliberative process" of a party- or union-pledged majority in exploring, deciding and enforcing the correct common line on environmental or growth-sensitive questions, what the firefighters’ union should get in bargaining, what tax or regulatory concessions should be extended to that coveted developer, or what the politically acceptable doctrine should be in the high school courses on biology or American history.

If that practice were to become common enough, how long would it be before a Sacramento legislative majority—most of which came from the local partisan talent pool—decided to codify and legitimize it by amending the Brown Act expressly to authorize party caucuses for city councils, county supervisors, school boards and other public bodies on the local scene?