Why does Florida always out-sunshine California?
Here’s Florida’s latest transparency coup: Gov. Rick Scott has made his top aides’ email accounts available on the Internet for all to see. The public can go online and peek into inbox and sent email folders at any time: no public record requests, no long waits, no government lawyers trying to scrub everything clean.
Florida continues to be the national leader in government transparency, using the type of technology that ought to be second-nature here but isn’t. California, a state overflowing with supposed innovation, is one where governments remain shrouded in darkness.
Don’t look for Scott’s counterpart here, Gov. Jerry Brown, to do anything similar. Brown, in all his incarnations, has never been a leader on transparency. In fact, his record as everything from Oakland mayor to state attorney general to secretary of state has been the opposite.
The culture of California government during the Brown era is one of opaqueness.
The alternative to Brown taking Scott’s top-down approach to reform — setting a bold standard and demanding others live up to it — is to change the culture more organically. Someone must cultivate change.
But with the state burdened by so many layers of government — cities, special districts, joint-power authorities — it seems all but impossible for a single hero to emerge. And there appear to be few heroes in waiting, anyway.
fact, access to routine records in California, such as emails, just gets worse month by month.
On Jan. 5, I asked for some emails from Hercules in Contra Costa County as a test of that city’s transparency. City Manager Steve Duran never replied formally to the request with any determination about what will be released.
Five months later, he shuffled me to the city attorney. I still have no idea what I will get, nor have I received any indication that Hercules’ leaders take transparency seriously.
Meanwhile, access remains terrible in Oakland. On March 1, I requested emails and other basic records involving Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente.
I might as well have spent the past three months standing under the oak tree in Frank H. Ogawa Plaza waiting for the acorns to turn into gold, which seems like a more realistic scenario than De La Fuente following the law and providing the records.
Since the request, I’ve received one email from his staff and no records. I’ve written to the public records coordinator in City Attorney Barbara Parker’s office and have not received an answer. No letter within 10 days stating what would be produced. No request for an extension. Nothing.
It’s as if De La Fuente thinks the law doesn’t apply to him or the people who work for him.
In Florida, it takes a few clicks to see the records of the state’s top official, who leads by example. You can read top officials’ emails at www.flgov.com/sunburst.
But here, we wait for changes that just don’t come. California’s Public Records Act, like most laws, hasn’t been amended well enough to keep up with technology. It isn’t even close.
Oakland has a local law that is supposed to increase transparency. However, it does nothing to ensure the timely release of records and, like the Public Records Act, it has very little teeth at all — a fact unscrupulous bureaucrats and politicians easily exploit.
De La Fuente probably will release those emails now that I have written about them. He will express righteous indignation that his staff somehow erred, that the months it took to comply, the appalling lack of communication, were all just mistakes.
But access delayed is access denied. De La Fuente is an elected official and is subordinate to the public, not the reverse. There is no plausible excuse for not providing his records.
At least Scott is doing better, and it matters here because transparency should know no state line. He and his state are leading the journey to the day when all governments will be open books.
That journey should be a race toward complete transparency. Right now, California is running dead last.
Thomas Peele is a digital investigative reporter for the Bay Area News Group and teaches a class on public records at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/thomas_peele.