Escondido, CA

Why fight public records transparency?


I’m always reluctant to criticize firefighters, who are, this time of year especially, the unquestioned heroes of California, and of the entire nation.

Still, questioning an organization of firefighters is really not the same as criticizing individual firefighters, so I’m going to ask flat out: Why would the California Association of Professional Firefighters have led the fight to make it harder for ordinary citizens to obtain public records from the state, county and municipal governments of the Golden State?

Robert Fellner in a Union Tribune editorial September 8 highlighted the fact that the Association helped kill Assembly Bill 1479 in the legislature, which would put teeth in the California Public Records Act (the state version of the federal Freedom of Information Act), which requires government agencies to make records available to the public.  Currently there are no penalties when a government agency drags its feet, which is not an uncommon practice. So, when an agency is afflicted with a bad case of the slows, the citizen has no recourse.

CPRA is a pretty comprehensive law. The California Supreme Court has ruled that residents have the right to see even text messages and emails that relate to government actions—even if those messages are on private servers.

AB 1479 attaches a $5,000 penalty for failing to follow this law. It would give the average citizen a weapon to use against a government agency trying to thwart him. Granted, $5,000 isn’t much of a penalty, but it’s better than nothing, and I hazard to guess that most public officials wouldn’t want to pay such a fine if they could avoid it.

AB 1479 passed in the Assembly nearly unanimously, but then, under extreme lobbying from the firefighters association—which is, remember, a union—and other public employee unions, it ran into legislative quicksand in the Senate. It is still stuck in committee.

Befuddled, I asked a local firefighter that I know, why firefighters wouldn’t want the public to be able to force government agencies at all levels to release public records?

He shrugged and said, “They don’t want people to know about their screw-ups.”

It can’t be that simple, or that outrageous, can it? Perhaps that’s one facet of their opposition, but, since other public employee unions are involved, I think maybe the biggest reason is that they don’t want the public to know what goes behind closed doors in contract negotiations.

Of all the states in the union, California may be the most in thrall to its public employee unions. Only the gaming tribes come close in political clout to public employee unions in Sacramento. Remember how Governor Schwarzenegger crashed on the rocks when he tried to take them on early in his first term? He was never the same again. He never picked a fight with the unions again, either.

The power of these unions has so far prevented the state, and by extension many local governments, from addressing the massive train wreck that public employee pensions will cause sooner rather than later, when their impossible to maintain salaries and benefits crash headlong into the inability of the public to pay without confiscatory tax increases.

Unions enjoy a good reputation in the Golden State, mainly because most people associate them with the struggles of the 1920s and 1930s, when workers had to battle, sometimes in actual bloody confrontations, with corporations, to win a living wage. Today’s public employee unions bear no resemblance to such struggles, other than the name “union.”

Today’s public employee unions are battling to increase their salaries and benefits from the wallets of the taxpayers.  The taxpayers deserve the right to be able to scrutinize contract negotiations after the fact. It’s our money.

So, whether it’s to protect themselves from criticism over screw-ups, or to protect their contract negotiations from close examination by transparency warriors, the state firefighters association has brazenly used its political clout to hobble the public’s right to know.

They owe us an explanation. It’s a trust issue as much as it is a transparency issue.

*Note: Opinions expressed by columnists and letter writers are those of the writers and not necessarily those of the newspaper.

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