Lois Henry

Saturday, Jan 04 2014 08:59 PM

LOIS HENRY: New year brings hope for government improvement

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    Californian columnist Lois Henry

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By Lois Henry

There were a lot of things that chapped my hide in 2013. But when I looked back over my "pointless scribbles" (one reader's description of my columns) from the last year, I noticed a pattern as to what caused the greatest chappage: Government stonewalling.

And there was plenty of it from agencies across the board.

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Lois Henry appears on "First Look with Scott Cox" every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. The show is also broadcast live on www.bakersfield.com. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.

I can't say which agency was worse in its attempt to keep the public out of its own business. But a few instances stand out.

Here's one that still rankles: The CHP refusing to name its two officers involved in the death of David Sal Silva last May.

Silva was passed out on the side of a road near Kern Medical Center and reportedly became agitated when awakened by a sheriff's deputy. It took seven sheriff's deputies, two CHP officers and a dog to subdue Silva, who suffered multiple baton

blows and was either hobbled or hogtied.

He died on the road while still restrained. A pathologist working for the Kern County coroner's office -- an office overseen by the sheriff -- determined Silva's death to be accidental and the result of heart disease.

Sheriff Donny Youngblood did release the names of deputies involved in the fracas but the CHP has steadfastly refused to cough up the names of its officers.

We don't have secret police in this country. Or at least we aren't supposed to.

Officers are required to wear their names and badge numbers as part of their official uniform.

When they are involved in a serious matter, such as the death of a citizen, the public has a right to know who they are.

That's not just me saying that.

The California Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the names of officers are not private.

Just last July, a published opinion from the First District Court of Appeal found that officers who pepper-sprayed students during a 2011 protest at UC Davis must be named. The Federated University Police Officers Association had sued to stop the names from being released.

In its conclusion, the First District Court of Appeal wrote: "As our Supreme Court has emphasized, '[t]he public has a legitimate interest not only in the conduct of individual officers, but also in how ... local law enforcement agencies conduct the public's business.'"

I presented all that info to the CHP's attorney and reiterated the paper's request for officer names in the Silva case last summer.

I got nothing back.

But what can you expect from an agency that even refused to release its policies on hobbling?

Sheesh.

Moving on, there was also Gov. Jerry Brown's attempt last year to make the California Public Records Act "optional" as a means to save the state a little money.

The Public Records Act makes virtually everything government agencies do on paper (or email) open to public inspection. It's a highly effective "keep 'em honest" check on government doings.

Thankfully, the act was kept intact. But the attempt to make it so should ring a few bells out there as to what our "leaders" think is expendable.

Closer to home, how about the Kern Community College District's attempt not to answer basic questions about how much money it had set aside for a foolish lawsuit to try to regain Bakersfield College's 2012 state football championship?

The district sued the California Community College Athletic Association and Southern California Football Association after they found BC's football program had broken numerous rules against favoring student athletes and stripped the school of its state championship. (By the way, the same rule violations were revealed in an internal audit done by the college).

When The Californian asked how much the district was spending on the suit, we were told to go file a Public Records Act request.

When we did, we were told we were seeking "information," not a specific "record," so we could "pound sand."

Grrrr.

Much rigamarole later, we found the district had set aside $50,000 to fund this ill-advised lawsuit.

Of course, the average citizen likely would have given up long before getting that information, which is exactly what district bureaucrats were hoping for with their little game.

Oh, but the list goes on.

UCLA is still refusing to release one of its professor's emails regarding his relationship with pesticide opponents while he was under contract by the state to act as an independent evaluator of methyl iodide, a controversial pesticide.

The university did release some of John Froines' emails, which showed a very cozy relationship, indeed, with anti-pesticide activists. There was even an email from his assistant telling activists that Froines supported their efforts but had to stay under the radar because "John has to protect his position as chair of the review committee for the time being."

UCLA did not, however, release all of Froines' emails, most notably his "sent" emails.

When challenged on that fact, UC's legal "brain trust" gave a number of exceedingly lame excuses for not releasing what are clearly public documents from a publicly purchased system maintained by a publicly funded university.

First, UC lawyers said Froines claimed not to have the emails anymore and that if they still existed on UCLA's back-up system, they were no longer public. Then they claimed that since the emails didn't address university business, they weren't public. Then they argued that releasing Froines' emails would infringe on his "academic freedom."

All of which is patently ridiculous.

UCLA's squirming caught the attention of state Sens. Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, and Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, who have continued to pursue UCLA on this issue.

Hopefully, UCLA administrators will someday look at their over-inflated paychecks and realize, "Holy smokes! We do work for the citizens of California!" and start adhering to the state Public Records Act.

Hopefully a lot of public agencies will have such an epiphany.

Ah, but that's what a fresh new year is for, right?

A chance to hope.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com

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