Category: Open Government
VoSD Silence of the Thumbs
...Yet in a growing number of cities, DeMaio wouldn't be allowed to use his personal Palm Pre with slide-out keyboard, or any other electronic device, personal or otherwise, to send or receive city-related messages during meetings. That's because legal and transparency questions have governments at various levels wringing their hands, and, in some cases, retreating...
This is the sort of thing a sunshine ordinance can clarify.
Why Bell Happened and How to Prevent Repeats
OPEN GOVERNMENT -- The explosive self-dealing scandal that has in a matter of weeks blown away the city of Bell's senior administrative tier was probably inevitable, given the gaps in the Brown Act and the newspaper publishing tradition that once provided small towns with a watchful eye and a to be reckoned with, notes a commentary in Voice of OC.
Taxpayers Going Postal Over Public Employee Pensions, Perks. Unions’ miscalculation: Opting for secrecy.
BY PETER SCHEER—For public employee unions–those representing police, firefighters, teachers, prison guards and agency workers of all kinds at the state and local level–these are the worst of times.
Despite record high membership and dues, and years of unparalleled clout in state capitols, public sector unions find themselves on the defensive, desperately trying to hold on to past gains in the face of a skeptical press and angry voters. So far has the zeitgeist shifted against them that, on one recent weekend, government employees were the butt of a Saturday Night Live skit, followed, the next day, by a New York Times magazine cover article proclaiming the “Teachers’ Unions’ Last Stand.”
Public unions’ traditional strength–the ability to finance their members’ rising pay and benefits through tax increases–has become a liability. Although private sector unions always have had to worry that consumers will resist rising prices for their goods, public sector unions have benefited from the fact that taxpayers can’t choose–they are, in effect, “captive consumers.”
At some point, however, voters turn resentful as they sense that: (1) they are underwriting, through their taxes, a level of salary and benefits for government employment that is better than what they and their families have; and (2) government services, from schools to the DMV, are not good enough—not for the citizen individually nor the public generally—to justify the high and escalating cost.
We are at that point.
In California, government sector unions, once among the most entrenched and powerful labor groups in the country, mainly have themselves to blame. For most of the post-war period, they were a force for progressive change, prospering by winning over public support for their agenda.
In the 1970s and 80s they backed laws like the Public Records Act and Brown Act to make state and local government more transparent. Because unions enjoyed broad-based political support, efforts to enhance government accountability and responsiveness to voters were seen–correctly–as benefiting the unions and their members.The public interest and public employees’ interests were aligned.
But the unions switched strategies. Although the change was gradual, by the 1990s California’s government unions had decided that, rather than cultivate voter support for their objectives, they could exert more influence in the Legislature, and in the political process generally, by lavishing campaign contributions on lawmakers. Adopting the tactics of other special interest groups, government unions paid lip service to democratic principles while excelling at the fundamentally anti-democratic strategy of writing checks to legislators, their election committees and PACs.
While not illegal (in fact, such contributions are constitutionally protected), the unions’ aggressive spending on candidates puts them on the same moral low ground as casino-owning tribes, insurance companies and other special interests that have concluded that the best way to influence the legislative process is to, well, buy it.
Public unions in California turned distrustful of voters and ambivalent about government transparency. In the mid-1990s unions backed improvements to the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law, but also inserted a provision assuring that the public would have no access to collective bargaining agreements negotiated by cities and counties—often representing 70% or more of their total operating budgets—until after the agreements are signed.
What happens when voters and the press have no opportunity to question elected officials about how they propose to pay for a lower retirement age, healthcare for retirees’ dependents, richer pension formulas and the like? The officials make contractual promises that are unaffordable, unsustainable (and, in general, don’t come due until after those elected officials have left office). In the case of Vallejo, in northern California, this veil of secrecy, and the symbiotic relationship it fosters, has led to municipal bankruptcy.
The biggest blow to unions’ public support has come from revelations about jaw-dropping compensation and pension benefits. Police have received unwelcome attention for budget-busting overtime and the manipulation of eligibility rules for “disability pensions,” which provide higher benefits and tax advantages. Other government employees, particularly managers, have been called out for “pension-spiking:” Using vacation time, sick pay and the like to boost income in the last years of employment, which are the basis for calculating retirement benefits.
Such gaming of the system boosts starting pensions to levels that can approach, and even exceed, employees’ salaries. Some examples from the reporting of the Contra Costa Times’ Daniel Borenstein: A retired northern California fire chief whose $185,000 salary morphed into a $241,000 annual pension; a county administrator whose $240,000 starting pension was 98 per cent of final salary; and a sanitary district manager who qualified for a $217,000 pension on a salary of $234,000. At a time when most Californians anticipate an austere retirement (if they can afford to retire at all), government pensions are a source of real voter anger.
The harm to the credibility of public employee unions from these excesses is made far worse by the unions’ attempts to hide them. The revelations about pay and pension abuses have surfaced only as a result of lawsuits. (Disclosure: The First Amendment Coalition has been a plaintiff in several of these cases.) Public employee unions, rather than taking the lead to stop abusive compensation practices, have vigorously opposed disclosure of individual employees’ salaries and pension amounts.
Public employee unions need to reboot. The old strategy of cynically buying political influence and excluding the public from decision-making has run its course. Unions can rebuild public support by recommitting to an agenda of open government in the public interest. If they don’t, they will be further marginalized.
City Could Make Some 'Private' E-mails Public
OPEN GOVERNMENT -- "With iPhones and Blackberries becoming must-have accessories, San Jose is poised to approve a ground-breaking disclosure policy that would ensure elected leaders don't use those personal devices to skirt public-records laws," reports John Woolfolk in the San Jose Mercury News.
Two years ago, the City of Encinitas conducted business like the City of Patterson. That ended after Council Member Barth began protesting closed door meetings.
CalAware President Emeritus's Richard McKee's intervention led to the Patterson City Council's acknowledgment this week that it had overstepped the limits of California’s open-meeting rules, and a pledge to comply more fully with the law in the future, reports James Leonard in the Patterson Irrigator. McGee expressed admiration for the city attorney's grace under fire.
After learning of potential Brown Act violations by the council from a Nov. 5 Irrigator editorial, (McKee) sent the council a letter outlining those and other violations and demanding four specific changes.
The council acknowledged and agreed to all four:
* Post special meeting notices that invite people to comment on agenda items before or during the council’s consideration of those items at that special meeting.
* Announce the “existing facts and circumstances” of anticipated litigation before closed-session discussion, as required by the Brown Act.
* Announce each council member’s vote when reporting action taken in closed session.
* Post regular meeting agendas that allow for public comment on closed-session items before closed sessions.
“These omissions were not intentional, but simply an oversight or a misunderstanding of the correct procedure to follow,” the city said in a statement Monday, Nov. 9. “These changes have been implemented and will take effect immediately.”
Logan later recommended that the city adopt all of Californians Aware’s demands — which included allowing comment before closed-session items at all meetings. However, he emphasized that, at times, the Brown Act allows for some secrecy.
In researching violations after the Oct. 26 meeting, . . . McKee found that in the first 10 months of 2009, the council had eight special meetings that included only closed-session items. None of those meeting agendas allowed for public comment.
McKee also found that the council consistently conducted closed sessions during regular meetings without allowing comments beforehand.
Mayor Becky Campo said the council didn’t do anything particularly different during the Oct. 26 meeting, but the unusual attention the meeting elicited drew attention to the violations. She said she takes responsibility for the oversights and suggested that it might be beneficial for the council to brush up regularly on the Brown Act.
McKee said that when such violations are spotted, his group uses a city’s reaction to the challenges to determine whether they were intentional. He said Logan’s reaction, along with the city’s promise to make the requested changes, leads him to believe the breaches were not.
“It is gratifying to find a city attorney so willing to share his perspectives on open-government issues,” McKee said. “It is even more pleasing to find one willing to make changes to better protect the public’s right to be informed and involved in its city government.”
Due to Barth's efforts, this issue has been cleaned up in Encinitas. There are dozens of other open government issues that remain dirty.
A Must Read: Council (4-1) votes against seeking an open government ordinance.