Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) has just released a summary of the four bills he is now carrying that support free speech and open government. This array turns out to be remarkably solicitous for what we at Californians Aware refer to as public forum rights, to which we are dedicated, namely “people’s rights to find out what citizens need to know to be truly self-governing, and to share what they know and believe without fear or loss.”  In recent years the senator, who has earned the right to be thought of as ‘Senator Sunshine’ if that title wouldn’t embarrass him, has carried other measures to keep the public informed of the workings of government while protecting speech and press.

In 2005-06 his AB 775 would have would have required discussion of, and action on, a proposed pay raise or other benefit package for the highest-ranking University of California system or campus officers to occur in open session of the appropriate committee, and that any final discussion or action on the proposal take place in open session of the board of regents. The bill was sidelined in its final committee hearing, supposedly because of its projected implementation costs. A more successful bill in that session was AB 2581, which added public college and university administrators to the list of those prohibited from disciplining students for publishing or speaking that would be constitutionally protected in the general community off-campus.

As for this year, here is the Senator’s own summary:

Protecting Journalism Teachers and Student Speech
This week, the California Senate approved legislation to protect high school and college teachers and other employees from retaliation by administrators as a result of student speech, which most often happens when a journalism advisor or professor is disciplined for content in a student newspaper. With this vote, California continues to lead the way in making sure true freedom of the press is alive and well on our campuses. Senate Bill 1370 follows a 2006 law I authored to prohibit censorship of college press by administrators and protect students from being disciplined for engaging in speech or press activities. Allowing a school administration to censor in any way is contrary to the democratic process and the ability of a student newspaper to serve as the watchdog and bring sunshine to the actions of school administrators.
    It is quite disheartening to hear, that after we specifically prohibited prior restraint by administrators, that some are engaging in this type of nefarious activity and even firing quality teachers because of content in the student newspaper. Specifically, SB 1370 would prohibit an employee from being dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, transferred, or otherwise retaliated against for acting to protect a student’s speech.
    There have been a number of documented cases throughout the state of journalism advisors being dismissed or reassigned due to student speech. In fact, my office has learned of cases in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Claremont, Fremont, Novato, Oxnard, Rialto, and Garden Grove.

  • A Los Angeles Unified School District case is one of many where a highly respected and successful newspaper advisor was removed from his position. In November 2006, the student newspaper published an editorial criticizing random searches conducted on campus. The newspaper advisor, Darryl Adams, was immediately removed after refusing to eliminate the editorial at the principal’s request. Adams was later removed as basketball coach and even as announcer for the football games. “In a span of four months, they all but stripped me of my professional existence,” said Adams.
  • Another case involved Janet Ewell, a Garden Grove tenured teacher and certified journalism educator, who was removed as newspaper advisor in 2002 despite her students winning numerous journalism awards. The school’s principal admitted to student reporters that he had removed Ewell as a result of editorials that ran in the school newspaper. The editorials focused on such issues as the school bathrooms, cafeteria food and a teacher who was unavailable to help students.
  • Ronnie Campagna, a journalism teacher of 18 years at San Marin High School in Novato, was removed in 2003 and replaced by a new teacher with no previous journalism experience after the student paper published stories critical of the administration. For example, one story criticized the school administration for not letting students stand up in the bleachers during varsity basketball games. The school board went so far as to attempt dissolving the entire program until parents protested and even offered to fund the class themselves.
  • In San Francisco, journalism and English teacher Katharine Swan was told that she must find a different school in which to teach after her students covered a first-year principal’s attempts to effect prior restraint and influence coverage of events occurring at the school.

Ensuring quality contractors, competitive bidding, and public access at UC
The Senate Appropriations Committee will soon consider legislation to ensure that the University of California contracts with responsible businesses and that there is a competitive bidding process every three years. In addition, SB 1596, the UC Responsible Contracting Act, requires the University to maintain a centralized database of contracts that is available for public review at each campus. In coordination with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), I introduced the measure as a result of numerous reports of UC’s deficient and non-transparent contract bidding process. It was recently uncovered that a UC Santa Barbara contractor violated wage and hour laws. For more than a decade, UC Davis has failed to put out to a bid contract for food services. In fact, the same food service company has held the contract for over thirty years.
    Each year, UC spends millions of dollars contracting for the delivery of products and services, yet the campuses are not required to maintain a centralized database of contracts and contractor information. SB 1596 will require such information be readily available to the public at each campus, health facility, and laboratory.
In addition, SB 1596  will establish a contractor responsibility program which requires contractors wishing to be considered for an award of contract with the University to file a questionnaire covering areas of past bankruptcy filings, convictions, loss of permits or license, and the disclosure of past judgments for issues such as taxes owed. SB 1596 will also ensure competition by requiring all contracts be limited to three years terms and that upon completion of the term, the University shall solicit bids through a competitive bidding process.
    Amidst growing public scrutiny of a food service contract at UC Davis, the University recently announced a six year extension coincided with the announcement of a multi-million dollar investment in the campus by the same contractor. It is unacceptable that UC Davis has contracted with the same campus food service company for decades without putting the contract out to bid.         The cost to taxpayers and students as a result of this policy is immeasurable. Recently, UC Santa Barbara awarded a low-bid contract to provide painting services on campus. Unfortunately, the contractor declared bankruptcy and the employees were unable to cash their paychecks for painting services they had already provided the University. Wages owed to workers included approximately $90,000. SB 1596 is expected to prevent such events from happening in the future.

Providing Greater Access to Government Contracts
Recently, the California Senate approved legislation to allow greater public access to government contracts as well as audits and reviews of public agencies. Senate Bill 1696 would prohibit a state or local agency from allowing an outside entity to control the disclosure of information that is otherwise subject to the state’s Public Records Act. In addition, the bill would specify that regardless of any contract term to the contrary, a contract for the purpose of conducting a review, audit, or report between a private entity and a state or local agency is subject to the same disclosure requirements as other public records. The need for the measure arose from the denial of a January 2007 request by the San Francisco Chronicle to the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF). UCSF refused to release an independent review of its finances or even the name of the firm that was issued a contract for $165,000 to carry out the review. UCSF claimed the auditing firm controlled the confidentiality of the contract and the audit.

Assisting State Whistleblowers
California’s law to protect state employees who report waste, fraud, or abuse within state agencies, has done little to help Ruby Cornejo and Michelle Dille, two whistleblowers within the Department of Social Services (DSS). Cornejo and Dille, who had a combined 66 years of experience within the Department when they openly criticized a lax policy on criminal background checks for foster parents and childcare and senior home licensees, which they argued risked the lives of already vulnerable citizens. The vocal criticism didn’t sit well with the department’s management. Cornejo and Dille reported their criticisms to the Bureau of State Audits in January 2003, only to consequently be retaliated against by their superiors. According to Cornejo and Dille, they faced four years of “continuous and unabated hostilities, harassment, and retaliation from DSS management.” The response from DSS management is a clear violation of the California Whistleblower Protection Act, which is designed to protect civil servants from improper retaliation or intimidation and is supposed to provide a timely review and resolution of complaints regarding “waste, fraud, abuse of authority, violation of law, or threat to public health and safety.”
However, the State Personnel Board has still not reviewed or resolved the cases, and Cornejo and Dille have faced combined legal costs of approximately $500,000.
    As a result, I have introduced Senate Bill 1267 to increase and better define the legal rights of whistleblowers. State employees have a fundamental right to report without retaliation instances of waste, fraud, and abuse. Without whistleblowers, government works in a vacuum and is often not accountable to the people it is supposed to serve. SB 1267 will ensure whistleblowers are not subjected to years of administrative hearings at the expense of themselves and taxpayers.
    The cases of Cornejo and Dille are apparently not isolated. According to the State Personnel Board’s report to the Governor and Legislature, of the 106 whistleblower retaliation complaints accepted by the Board between 2003 and 2005, none were resolved in favor of the complainant. 58 of the complaints were denied, 5 resulted in a “stipulated agreement” and 42 were “still pending.” Not only do these delays result in unfair costs to whistleblowers, but they also result in burdens to the state, and in essence, render the current California Whistleblower Protection Act useless.
    SB 1267 would explicitly give whistleblowers the right to take their case to court if the State Personnel Board exceeds a 70 day timeframe in resolving the case; would prevent excessive timeframe extensions by requiring the personnel board to resolve cases within 70 days even if multiple complaints are consolidated into one investigation or hearing; would entitle the State and the injured party to seek reimbursement for their expenses, costs, and attorney fees when liability is established; and would provide protections for former employees, not just current employees.