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Tuesday, Jun 18 2013 06:46 PM

Don't let govt operate behind closed doors

By The Bakersfield Californian

If Robert Rizzo, the former city administrator for the Los Angeles County city of Bell, were a member of the California Legislature today, we can be pretty sure how he would have voted on AB 76 and SB 71, two bills tucked into the 2013-14 state budget that essentially turn the California Public Records Act into a suggestion. Having felt the sting of a CPRA-enabled expose that laid bare his role in the siphoning of $6.7 million in public funds -- "corruption on steroids" is what then-DA Steve Cooley called it -- Rizzo surely would have voted yes on this emasculation. And, incredibly, the majority would be with him.

For reasons not entirely clear, the Legislature wants the CPRA to go away -- or at least render it unenforceable -- by allowing public agencies, including local governments, to consider compliance "optional." And it will happen if Gov. Jerry Brown signs the state budget as it now sits before him.

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Brown shouldn't merely reject these 11th-hour trailer bills, he should wad them into balls, light them on fire and fling them at those most responsible for adding them to the budget bill.

Without the CPRA, we would never know about the broken bolts on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. We wouldn't know about the size of Bakersfield public safety employees' pensions, or the Bakersfield City School District's disciplinary record of former vice-principal Vincent Brothers, now in prison for murdering his wife, children and mother-in-law.

The Legislative Analyst's Office says strict adherence to the CPRA costs too much money. But, as recent cases of corruption and malfeasance in the cities of Bell, Vernon and Maywood illustrate, giving state and local governments the ability to simply ignore public records requests would be plenty expensive, too. And wrong. It might even encourage the next Robert Rizzo to start passing out criminally exorbitant salaries to his friends on the city council. Or allow agency bureaucrats to drop thousands of taxpayer dollars on drinks and lap dances at strip clubs, as two Port of Oakland officials were found to have done last year in Houston.

Local government officials will only have to turn over requested documents when it suits them -- if it suits them. And if they reject the request, they won't need to give a written reason, as is the case now. That would make the CPRA not worth the paper it's printed on.

Don't let this get through, governor. Don't make optional the disclosures that are now mandatory under the state's landmark law, enacted in 1968. Responsible officials won't balk at providing records but officials with something to hide certainly will. And why not? The Legislature says they can operate in secret.

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