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Leland Yee: Stop the Cronyism and Open Government Doors

Today marks the beginning of Sunshine Week in California to promote government transparency.

Letter to the Editor:

Since 2005, Sunshine Week has acted as a rallying point for Americans to demand transparency and accountability from their government.

As an open government advocate, I was happy to carry SCR 8 in 2011 establishing Sunshine Week in California in order to further these goals. In honor of the occasion, I wish to speak about why I believe these values are important, and to tell you about what I have been able to accomplish in my years in the legislature and what I will continue to fight for.

James Madison, whose birthday Sunshine Week commemorates, said "A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both." While I will likely never rival his eloquence, I share the sentiment.

A democratic society simply cannot function if its citizens are unaware of what their government is doing. How are we to determine if a program or policy is effective without having knowledge of the cost, the participants, and the rate of success? Furthermore, if public business is conducted behind closed doors, what assurance do we have that it is being done honestly and competently?

An example that comes to mind is the Campus Auxiliary Organizations in the UC and CSU systems. These organizations operate at California’s state schools on a combination of public and private money, and after years of trying, finally opened their books due to the passage of my SB 8 last year. 

They are tasked with supplementing California’s Universities by sponsoring professorships and scholarships, while raising funds from alumni. Unfortunately, there were numerous examples of egregious misuse of these funds. The President of Sacramento State and Chair of the Auxiliary Foundation had his house on campus remodeled to the tune of $200,000. A board member at Sonoma State stepped down from the board, and received a $1.25 million dollar loan from it two days later. 

It is clear even to a casual observer that this sort of cronyism is not an example of a government agency acting appropriately, but this is what happens behind closed doors. And that is why I continue to work towards throwing them open.

This year, I am carrying a sizable package of open government bills in the Senate. SB 1000 will subject the California Public Utilities Commission to the Public Records Act, allowing us access to vital information about gas lines and incident reports, making sure we know about potential threats to public safety in our neighborhoods. 

SB 1001 will increase fees paid by lobbyists in order to properly fund our State lobbying database, allowing Californians to know who is attempting to influence their elected officials. SB 1002 will assure that documents made public can be easily searched online, ending the days of pouring over thousands of pages that could often obscure wrongdoing and malfeasance. SB 1336 will assure that information brought forward by whistleblowers can be seen by the public, instead of dismissed in private hearings and never seen again. 

And SB 1003 & SCA 7 that will strengthen the Brown Act, which requires elected officials to conduct public business in public.

All in all, we’re all better off when the public is aware of what our government is doing. Just as it’s the responsibility of citizens to learn about and participate in the political process, it’s our responsibility as legislators to make sure that we are operating in an open manner, that we allow people to see the mechanics of government. Only then can we be sure that our government is truly of, by, and for the people.

- Senator Leland Yee

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