Sacra­mento’s Shroud of Se­crecy

The Signal - - Opinion - Scott WILK

Trans­parency is a vi­tal ne­ces­sity at ev­ery level of gov­ern­ment. But in Cal­i­for­nia, gov­ern­ment trans­parency seems to be fall­ing by the way­side as the state bur­dens its tax­pay­ers with ex­pen­sive projects — but ex­ploits its own laws to keep its op­er­a­tions hid­den from the pub­lic who funds them in the first place.

A shrink­ing me­dia at the state and lo­cal level has re­sulted in many im­por­tant is­sues – like the air we breathe, the water we drink, the roads we drive and the ed­u­ca­tion our chil­dren re­ceive – getting lit­tle or no cov­er­age. A great deal of time and re­sources is spent cov­er­ing the ac­tions hap­pen­ing in Wash­ing­ton, DC., but for the most part, those de­ci­sions do not di­rectly im­pact our ev­ery­day lives.

Hav­ing spent six years in the Leg­is­la­ture, I can cer­tainly at­test that there is a crit­i­cal need to in­crease pub­lic aware­ness and trans­parency when state com­mit­tees or agen­cies meet. In 1993, Sacra­mento passed a law re­quir­ing lo­cal gov­ern­ments to open up stand­ing com­mit­tees to the pub­lic. How­ever, those rules do not ap­ply to state agen­cies – and they should, which is why I will be in­tro­duc­ing leg­is­la­tion this week that would ad­dress this is­sue.

I would point to Cal­i­for­nia’s failed High Speed Rail Au­thor­ity (HRSA) as an ex­am­ple of not only the im­por­tance of trans­parency, but also the need to in­crease pub­lic aware­ness of many projects and so­cial pro­grams in Cal­i­for­nia. After all, tax­pay­ers foot the bill for all of them.

A re­cent scathing au­dit of HRSA by Cal­i­for­nia State Au­di­tor Elaine Howle un­der­scores just how far off track an agency can go when there is not ap­pro­pri­ate pub­lic scru­tiny. Trans­parency equals ac­count­abil­ity, and in the case of the bul­let train, the lack of trans­parency has cost tax­pay­ers bil­lions of dol­lars. Yet an­other blow to the wildly un­pop­u­lar project that is now 13 years be­hind sched­ule, tens of bil­lions of dol­lars over bud­get and frankly should be de­railed.

The scathing 92-page re­port showed that the project’s man­age­ment lacks suf­fi­cient over­sight and in­ter­nal con­trols, and that it rushed to start con­struc­tion of the project, know­ing that by not com­plet­ing suf­fi­cient plan­ning first, the project would be ex­posed to a num­ber of risks it had not ad­dressed. All of these prob­lems could have been pre­vented from the start had the HRSA op­er­ated un­der to­tal trans­parency and been held ac­count­able.

The HRSA’s staff rec­om­men­da­tion to route the Palm­dale to Bur­bank sec­tion along the 14 free­way was not wel­come news for those of us liv­ing along that route. It will not only dis­rupt the ru­ral way of life in Ac­ton/Agua Dulce but also will af­fect neigh­bor­hoods and pro­posed projects in our com­mu­nity. The pub­lic should have been able to lis­ten to the de­lib­er­a­tions on why the staff chose this route. Pub­lic com­ment pe­ri­ods are mean­ing­less if there is no sun­light shed on the de­ci­sion-mak­ing process.

But High Speed Rail is just one of many pro­grams that need closer scru­tiny and more trans­parency.

In 2014 and 2015, I also au­thored leg­is­la­tion that would have ad­dressed the lack of trans­parency. Both times, it unan­i­mously sailed through the Leg­is­la­ture only to be ve­toed by Gov. Jerry Brown. We have a new gov­er­nor com­ing into of­fice in Jan­uary and a chance to get this right. It is my hope Gov.-elect Gavin New­som will be sup­port­ive of re­quir­ing our gov­ern­ment to con­duct its busi­ness in a vis­i­ble and trans­par­ent man­ner.

Pol­icy de­ci­sions that im­pact our ev­ery­day lives should be dis­cussed, de­bated and voted upon in an open en­vi­ron­ment where cit­i­zenry has an op­por­tu­nity to weigh in with de­ci­sion­mak­ers and every­one has ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion. When gov­ern­ment op­er­ates in se­crecy, or even ap­pears to keep the pub­lic at arm’s length, it un­der­mines cit­i­zens’ trust in gov­ern­ment.

In the state Se­nate, all hear­ings are tele­vised. Leg­is­la­tion must be pub­licly avail­able 72 hours be­fore it can be voted upon and hear­ings must be no­ticed to the pub­lic. The state re­lies on gov­ern­ment trans­parency to keep the peo­ple’s trust, but we can­not al­low for any loop­holes or wig­gle room.

A re­cent Cal­i­for­nia Pub­lic Pol­icy In­sti­tute poll re­vealed 67 per­cent of re­spon­dents be­lieved that Sacra­mento is con­trolled by spe­cial in­ter­ests. To bat­tle those spe­cial in­ter­ests, it is im­per­a­tive that the gov­ern­ment con­duct its busi­ness in a vis­i­ble and trans­par­ent man­ner at all lev­els.

My pro­posal will add sun­shine to the process and bet­ter en­sure that de­ci­sions com­ing out of Sacra­mento are in the best in­ter­est of the many, not the few.

I will con­tinue to make gov­ern­ment trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity a top pri­or­ity as I be­lieve pub­lic over­sight and in­put lead to wiser pol­icy de­ci­sions that ben­e­fit all Cal­i­for­ni­ans.

Sen. Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, rep­re­sents the state’s 21st Se­nate District, which in­cludes the An­te­lope Val­ley and most of the Santa Clarita Val­ley.

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