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Clay Russell

Is “Open Government” Such a Hard Concept to Grasp?

Is “Open Government” Such a Hard Concept to Grasp?

There was an article online yesterday about the woeful state of public access to California’s database of lobbyists and their influence in state government. It was sad but not surprising. The Fresno Bee calls the system the “secrecy lobby,” and that pretty much sums things up.

By law, the people of California have the right to know who contributes to political campaigns, how much money lobbyists give to politicians, and who gives gifts to government officials. There’s a reason for the limits on those contributions and gifts, and we the people deserve to judge for ourselves what might or might not influence public servants as they carry out their duties.

Let me be clear: not every cash contribution, Christmastime fruit-and-cheese basket, or plate of Baked-Chicken-with-Vegetable-Medley at the Sheraton means that someone is on the take. Not by any means. It’s just that the people get to make that call. But how can we do that – how can anyone make an informed decision about anything – when institutional barriers exist between them and the information they need and are entitled to?

In the 2011-2012 legislative session alone, over half a billion dollars was spent by Sacramento lobbyists to advance their agendas, and the public is supposed to have access to that information. Yet even now, in a digital age of immediate information, and in the world’s capital of high technology, if you want all the relevant data you must buy a CD-ROM from the Secretary of State’s office.

Think about how ridiculous that is. Without getting out of bed we can read thousands of books from libraries around the world…for free. We can view 35,000 works of art in the Louvre…for free. We can follow NASA’s Curiosity rover as it explores the surface of Mars…for free.

Yet to gain access to public information held in Sacramento by the California Secretary of State, we must go back in time and have someone put a plastic disk in an envelope and mail it to us…for a fee.

Only last month, in a blatant attempt to cloud our view into state government, Governor Brown and the legislature attempted to remove the teeth from the 45-year-old California Public Records Act as part of a quiet budget deal. Fortunately, the media caught wind of the bad smell coming from the capitol and protested. The public outcry grew louder until the governor and legislature came to their collective senses and backed down.

Apparently, Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), a declared candidate for Secretary of State, was one of the few lawmakers who protested this end run around transparency, but he caught hell for it from his own party’s leadership. Disagreement is not tolerated in the California State Capitol, it seems – even within the democratic caucus.

Pete Peterson of Los Angeles, the only Republican candidate for Secretary of State, has framed his campaign around increasing government transparency and civic engagement. In deep contrast to the status quo in Sacramento, he aspires to be California’s first “Chief Engagement Officer.”

But why go through the ritual of hide-and-seek again and again? It seems sometimes that the people in power spend more time trying to obscure what they’re doing than actually doing anything productive.

If I were the cynical type I’d think people had something to hide. Maybe it’s true that laws, like sausages, shouldn’t be observed too closely while they’re being made, but we should make that call ourselves. This is one thing we don’t need our elected officials doing for us.

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Clay Russell, a longtime FR friend and former Special Assistant to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, currently serves as Campaign Manager for Pete Peterson, Republican candidate for Secretary of State.