Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) is opening the 2012 legislative season with a cluster of bills to improve governmental transparency and accountability, according to an announcement on his website.  The measures would:

  • end the broad secrecy public utilities enjoy for information they provide to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC);
  • double lobbyists’ registration fees to help fund upgrading of the online Cal-Access political reform disclosure site;
  • require digital public records held by government agencies to be user-friendly and searchable by commonly used software;
  • allow a lawsuit to establish that a practice violated the open meeting law even if the offending agency says it won’t be repeated; and
  • allow voters to mandate public notice of Brown Act meetings in the state constitution where it can’t be suspended on cost grounds.

SB 1000 – Ending Secrecy at the CPUC

In November, the San Francisco Chronicle documented several instances of the CPUC denying public access to safety reports, audits, and other information. In fact, most documents at the CPUC are shielded by a secrecy statute passed in 1951 and a Commission rule adopted in the mid-1950s.

Yee’s SB 1000 will subject the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to the state’s Public Records Act.

Currently, unlike most states – as well as all other public agencies in California – CPUC keeps documents secret unless the Commission votes to allow public access.

The CPUC policy has also been costly. Thirty-four of the 42 serious gas pipeline incident reports since 2006 are still not available for public review. Efforts to gain access to these documents have resulted in taxpayers footing the bill for expensive attorneys and delays.

The secrecy statute was also used in 2005 to prevent public disclosure of records regarding gas pipeline accidents to KNBC, a Los Angeles area television station. And despite the 2010 San Bruno disaster, the same statute is still being used today to prevent public access by Californians concerned about dangerous pipelines running underneath their neighborhoods.

The Chronicle also documented a case in which the CPUC destroyed a 1963 report detailing a natural gas explosion that resulted in the death of a San Francisco firefighter. Compounding the lack of disclosure, the CPUC often allows private utility companies to determine whether information is open or confidential – a practice that is specifically outlawed for all other state and local agencies as a result of a 2008 law (SB 1696) also authored by Yee.

“Californians have a fundamental right to know how their government is working,” said Yee. “As taxpayers, they should have full access to all documents and information that affects them and their families.”

“If the San Bruno disaster has taught us anything, it is that we need to be vigilant in ensuring utility companies are not endangering our communities,” said Yee. “The CPUC is supposed to be there to protect us and not as a barrier to public access.”

SB 1001 – Doubling Lobbyist Fees to Help Maintain Campaign Disclosure System

SB 1001 will increase fees required of registered lobbyists in order to finance the maintenance of the state’s database that tracks campaign contributions and lobbying activity known as Cal-Access.

A few days ago Cal-Access had been shut down for well over a month as a result of a crash due to outdated technology.

The shutdown resulted in members of the public being unable to access how much money entities are spending on lobbying activity or donating to political campaigns.

“It is simply unacceptable that the public cannot access basic information on campaign contributions and lobbying activity,” said Yee. “The crash of Cal-Access not only prevents public access, it means government is not being transparent or being held accountable.”

Currently, lobbyists only pay $50 in registration fees for each legislative session. The fees have not been increased by the Legislature since 1974. Yee’s bill would double the fees to $100 and would increase with the cost of living (COLA).

There are over 1,000 registered lobbyists in California. The legislation would result in more than $50,000 per a legislative session in additional funds to run the state’s political database.

“While this bill may not pay for a complete overhaul of Cal-Access, it will allow the system to be continuously maintained,” said Yee. “With that said, young entrepreneurs have started major social networking sites and databases with minimal funding. We should be able to do the same within state government in order to develop and run an effective and modern campaign and lobbying disclosure system.”

SB 1002 – Allowing Greater Access to Public Records

SB 1002 provides greater access to government records, specifically requiring public documents and data that are electronically available to be user-friendly and searchable by commonly used software.

Often when government agencies post electronic records online or provide electronic copies of documents in response to a public records request, the data provided is simply a scanned graphic image file that is not searchable or able to be sorted, even though the agency has the file in a searchable format.

Under Yee’s bill, such electronic documents would need to be produced in an open source file, word processing document, spreadsheet, or other format in which keywords or names could be easily searched using commonly used software, which is often the format internally used by the public agency.

“Producing a 2,000 page electronic document that cannot be searched or sorted is inadequate and almost useless,” said Yee. “For too long, many government agencies – either by choice or inertia – have been living in the Stone Age when it comes to producing public documents. This bill will not only bring public agencies into the 21st Century, but will ensure greater transparency and accountability.”

SB 1003 – Ensuring Local Government Transparency

SB 1003 will help ensure greater local government transparency by adding language to the Brown Act to allow a court to declare that a violation has occurred even where that agency insists that the offending practice will not be repeated.

In McKee v. County of Tulare, [a case brought by Richard McKee, the late co-founder and first president of Californians Aware] the Court of Appeal ruled that there could be no injunctive and declaratory relief for a single past violation because the Tulare Board of Supervisors appeared to stop holding its customary private lunch meetings—billed to the taxpayer as official business but defended as not Brown Act governed meetings— after the lawsuit was filed.

That decision invites the petitioners to initiate a new lawsuit if the board returns to its bad behavior, thereby creating the potential for an endless loop of violations followed by corrective promises.

Unlike the Bagley-Keene Act, the language currently in the Brown Act does not allow injunctive and declaratory relief for past actions. This simple amendment ensures the public has the tools necessary to hold accountable public agencies that violate the Brown Act.

SCA 7 – No Longer Subjecting the Brown Act to Budget Constraints

Last year, Yee introduced SCA 7 to ensure public entities follow requirements to post agendas and to disclose any actions taken. If approved by two-thirds of the Assembly, Senate Constitutional Amendment 7 would go before voters during the next statewide ballot.

The bill passed the Senate unanimously and currently awaits action by the Assembly.

SCA 7 comes after years in which fundamentally important provisions of the Ralph M. Brown Act – the state’s main open government law – have been suspended or threatened during state fiscal crisis.

Under existing law, local governments receive reimbursement for the cost of fulfilling statutory requirements enacted by the Legislature, however when the voters approve such a law, no state reimbursement is necessary. Such would be the case under SCA 7.

Despite open government advocates arguments that there are no significant costs that should be reimbursable by the state for simply posting a single copy of an agenda in a publicly accessible location and reporting action taken in closed session, the Commission on State Mandates has reimbursed local agencies about $20 million annually.

Because of this long history of bloated and unjustifiable charges to the state, the Legislature and the Governor suspended the Brown Act for a period of time in 1991 and the public’s rights continue to be threatened every time there is a budget shortfall. Last year, the Brown Act was not funded in the state budget, which has created confusion about whether or not public bodies currently need to follow the agenda posting and reporting laws.

“Californians have a fundamental right to know what their government is doing,” said Yee. “One only needs to look at corruption within the City of Bell to realize that the Brown Act should never be compromised. Our open meeting laws are too important to be made optional every time the state runs short of money. SCA 7 will ensure government agencies provide the public the information they deserve.”