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 decision-makers 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.