As we Insiders know all too well, at every level government the people we elect and the bureaucrats they appoint or hire love to keep things secret and often will do anything to limit public access to documents. Federal, state or local, they will seek to keep information hidden - much of it rightfully public information.
Ironically, United States vs. Reynolds, the 1953 US Supreme Court case that recognized the State Secrets Privilege, was based on a false secrecy claim used by lawyers for the federal government who were defending a lawsuit brought by the widows of three RCA engineers killed on a Air Force B-29 that crashed in Waycross, Georgia. The federal attorneys sought to block the release of the accident report for the B-29 claiming that its release would endanger national security.
By 2000, the accident report had made its way to the Internet, where it was found by Judy Loether, the daughter of one of the RCA engineers. The report turned out to contain no state secrets, but it did contain information about the particular B-29 that crashed, as well as the plane's maintenance record. That information supported the widows' complaints and would have been a key to any resulting civil trial.
(You can learn a little more about this by listening to Act II of an episode of This American Life from June, 2009, concerning the origins of institutions - check around the 27:30 mark).
If the federal government is willing to falsely invoke the States Secrets Privilege, imagine what happens at the local level, which is often subject to much less public scrutiny. As scandals in Bell, Upland, San Bernardino County, or even at the CalPERS governing board (see the front page of today's LA Times) have shown, if the public isn't privy to information, elected and appointed officials can find opportunities for malfeasance of all sorts.
A reader turned us on to an opinion piece in last Sunday's Daily Bulletin by open government activist Richard McKee (photo, left). McKee wrote that voters have a duty to keep watch on their local officials, and reporters have an obligation to find the information the public needs to make informed decisions. He also noted that the problem of staying apprised of what's going on in government has become exponentially more difficult thanks to the proliferation of government agencies:
The sad news is that this all happens because "we the people" don't pay any attention; a willful ignorance amply facilitated by news media that fail to keep us informed. The usual practice is for the electorate to vote for those telling us what we want to hear, whether it's for or against an incoming Walmart, funding for parks, promoting public transportation, refurbishing schools or some other hot topic; then we return to ignoring local government as soon as we leave the polling place.
And this problem has been made more difficult by local government's eagerness to create more and more public agencies. What do you know of your local sanitation district, or the community service, recreation, vector control, flood, water, airport, harbor, irrigation, public transportation, hospital, waste management, utilities or cemetery districts? How about your council of governments, air quality management or local agency formation commission?
Every one of these public boards and commissions employs staff and sets their compensation. But it's not only the salaries and obvious benefits, it's the pensions - and boy, are they something!
McKee is absolutely right in pointing out the multiple layers of local government that are technically subject to open government laws, but which in practice conduct their daily operations without much public input at all. The Claremont Unified School District, for example, is free to routinely ignore requests for public documents about such things as the district's finances, and no one notices or cares until the district comes, hat in hand, asking the voters to approve another overpriced bond.
Or who, really, keeps an eye on the San Gabriel and Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, which has dole out tens of millions of dollars with very little real oversight? To take the RMC example, a 2009 state audit found a number of problems with the RMC's handling of the public funds:
The Conservancy Has Not Exercised Adequate Fiduciary Oversight of Bond Funds
The audit identified a significant number of recurring audit findings from 2006 related to the Conservancy and its joint powers entity, the Watershed Conservation Authority (Authority). We also found instances of questionable practices and expenditures at the Authority. Collectively,these issues demonstrate the Conservancy’s inadequate fiduciary oversight of bond funds....
The current audit determined the Authority commingled bond funds with general operating funds, and inappropriately used these funds for ineligible costs; and the Authority has not completed annual financial audits.
Yet, all the public sees are headlines about the RMC awarding cities like Claremont millions of dollars to build projects like Padua Park or to buy open space or to fund studies of the pet water projects of the City's dilettantes. Because we don't look beyond the headlines, agencies like the RMC operate with impunity and can easily become nothing more slush funds to help promote the political prospects of its friends.
Incredibly, the RMC received a similar audit in 2006 and apparently ignored a number of findings. The RMC was able to do so because very few people really care. If we repeat the RMC's conduct across the myriad of state and local agencies Richard McKee alluded to, it's easy to see how we Californians ended up in our present fiscal mess.
Ultimately, it's up to you, Mr. and Ms. Voter, to own the problems your inattentiveness beget.