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As the story goes, somebody opened a restaurant with politicians and bureaucrats as waiters but it failed because they kept serving the food under the table. In the real world, likewise, politicians and bureaucrats strive to keep things out of sight from taxpayers. As Taryn Luna writes in the Sacramento Bee, one way they do that is through “ex parte communication,” private communications between state agencies, boards and commissions, and those they purport to oversee.
In the interest of public transparency, such secret communications are banned, but lawmakers have carved out exceptions. Officials of the Public Utilities Commission, Coastal Commission, Board of Equalization, the Public Employee Relations Board and the California Air Resources Board, among others, “are allowed to communicate with groups behind closed doors and in private emails.” State legislators who don’t rule on specific regulatory cases “also can discuss their business privately.” Ex parte communications, however, are hardly the limits of government secrecy.
Luna’s veteran colleague Dan Walters observes that every year thousands of bills wind up in “suspense files” because they would create government expense. Though sometimes valid, the process allows legislators “to decide in secret which bills will be allowed to proceed and which will not, for reasons known only to themselves.” Walters contends this secrecy should stop, and notes that a pending ballot measure would require “sneaky trailer bills” to be in print 72 hours before votes. That would still leave politicians with ample opportunity for mischief.
In 2012 voters faced four ballot measures on taxes and spending. The Senate Governance and Finance Committee held hearings on these measures, and the California Channel gave taxpayers statewide a chance to gain insights from the testimony. Unfortunately, senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg blocked citizens’ access by killing the live broadcast, and followed by making this claim: “I pride myself on being open and transparent.”
Steinberg’s action to block the live broadcast prompted objections from the media, but journalists and editorial writers quickly forgot about it. Steinberg is now running for mayor of Sacramento, and the Sacramento Bee endorses him as the “clear choice” for the office.