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Thomas Elias

Thomas Elias

Much has been made — and rightly so — of the “budget trailer” bill passed swiftly and without public hearings earlier this summer that allows virtually complete secrecy to the new semi-governmental corporation that will administer California’s upcoming cap and trade program for reducing air pollution and greenhouse gases.

That measure, known as SB 1018, allows directors of the new corporation to do anything it likes in secrecy. The corporation will eventually levy heavy fees against businesses that emit more than the prescribed level of pollutants. Called the Western Climate Initiative, Inc., it is a joint effort of the California Air Resources Board and the Canadian provinces of Quebec and British Columbia and is chartered in Delaware.

The fees could mount into the billions of dollars, and the fact the corporation is chartered in Delaware by itself makes its books less open to the public than if it were a purely California outfit.

That’s what you get when you have one-party government, which California now has because Republicans have been so inept in adapting to modern ideas and lifestyles that they have virtually ceded control of state government to the Democrats, who now hold all statewide offices and control both houses of the Legislature.

But cap and trade is only part of this miserable story. For in the fuss over SB 1018, another budget trailer bill allowing even more egregious government secrecy has been all but ignored.

That one, called AB 1464 and passed on June 27 along with a companion bill SB 1006, contains a set of exemptions from open government requirements of the 1950s-era Ralph M. Brown Act that will last until the end of June 2015. The Brown Act for more than half a century has compelled city councils, county boards and other agencies to open almost all their meetings to the public and publish agendas at least 72 hours in advance, thus allowing citizens to do something about wrongheaded or possibly crooked proposals.

Overreacting to a the state’s money crunch, state legislators suspended several key Brown Act provisions for local governments for three years, including those that require posting agendas well in advance of meetings, inclusion in those agendas of a general description of each item to be discussed in both open and closed sessions and reporting in open session all actions or votes taken in closed sessions.

In short, this happened because the state says it can’t afford to reimburse cities for the cost of posting agendas and meeting results and because under a 2004 law there can be no state mandates without reimbursement. So any local agency that likes can now deprive citizens of the ability to prepare to contend with upcoming proposals and can hide its votes from the citizens it’s supposed to serve.

That’s potentially the worst step backward for open government in modern memory, and it came in the form of fine print buried in the midst of a very long bill, making many sorts of other cuts.

There is no way either the cap-and-trade secrecy bill or the gutting of important Brown Act protections could have passed if two-party government existed in California.

For both major parties steadfastly claim to be champions of open government, even when many of their members vote against new transparency laws. Had either of these measures been debated in public, neither could have passed. But the Democrats’ one-party domination assured there would be no such debate.

Instead, both were passed in bills including financial adjustments that qualified them as fast-action budget trailers.

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Even Democratic voters who oppose most planks in the platforms of the state and national Republican Party must surely now see the value a significant opposition party can bring to government when measures like these are being railroaded through.

To their great credit, most city councils around California have so far ignored the secrecy enabled by AB 1464 and continued to publish detailed agendas and make reports on closed sessions.

“The cities of California are committed to open and transparent government,” said Mountain View Mayor Mike Kasperzak, president of the League of California Cities, which helped pass the Brown Act. But what happens if the composition of many city councils changes over the new three years? No one can know if new members would continue favoring openness.

The League of Cities has officially called on state legislators to adopt a 72-hour agenda notice rule for themselves, something that probably would have precluded passage of the new secrecy measures had it existed.

But there’s almost no chance of this happening, no matter how obviously needed it may be. For without a significant loyal opposition to call attention to underhanded, secret measures, there is little political pressure on the majority to do anything to fix its recent mistakes.

Elias is a syndicated columnist on California issues. He can be reached at tdelias@aol.com.

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