By The Bakersfield Californian
Voters need to recognize only two things when they cast their ballots for Proposition 42 on June 3: Government should work for them and be accountable to them. A "yes" vote for Proposition 42 will give constitutional protection to California public records and open meeting laws. Compliance with these laws cannot be treated as "voluntary."
Consider, for example, the pay scandal in the Southern California city of Bell, where the top administrators and elected officials were ripping off taxpayers with their exorbitant salaries and benefits. Only the dogged attention of citizen watchdogs and their use of California's public records and public meeting laws pried the lid off of that can of worms, sending some of the fat cats to jail.
But a provision in government transparency laws called for local agencies to be reimbursed by the state for the costs associated with providing citizens with such things as copies of meeting agendas or notices.
While most local government agencies were restrained in their reimbursement requests, some took advantage, seeking thousands of dollars from the state. And during a state budget-cutting period, the governor and legislators sought to make local government agencies' compliance with public records and opening meeting laws optional.
Political watchdog groups and the news media, as well as everyday citizens who were just trying to keep their government honest, howled in protest. That led to Proposition 42 being placed on the June 3 ballot.
In addition to giving constitutional protection to the basic right of citizens to participate in government meetings and inspect government documents, the proposition eliminates the need for the state to reimburse local government agencies for the cost.
Opening themselves to public scrutiny should be the obligation of all local, state and federal agencies. Bearing the cost should be part of that obligation.
The state's open meeting and public records laws allow government agencies to charge reasonable fees to recover costs, such as those associated with making copies.
Placing in the state constitution the laws requiring government agencies to be transparent will keep the tinkering fingers of politicians from snatching away the basic rights of citizens to participate in their democracy.
Without access to government records, how can we know about wasteful spending, development proposals, public safety threats, child abuse, or all sorts of issues? How can we keep our elected and appointed officials accountable?
"Trust us. We're from the government," just doesn't cut it.
Ironically, one of the nation's most secretive presidents, Richard Nixon, argued for open government: "When information which properly belongs to the public is systematically withheld by those in power, the people soon become ignorant of their own affairs, distrustful of those who manage them, and -- eventually -- incapable of determining their own destinies."
If Nixon's words can't sway you, perhaps Thomas Jefferson's will: "Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves are its only safe depositories."
Government belongs to the people -- and the people should vote yes on Proposition 42.