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Ron Kaye: Outcry preserves the right to know

June 21, 2013
(Ron Kaye )

Journalists, the good government crowd, even some ordinary people who believe in democracy, felt triumphant last week when the farce in Sacramento over what they called the "gutting … neutering … eviscerating'' of California's freedom of information law ended the way they had hoped.

A victory for open government, for freedom, they said, proof that the politicians will respond to the public if people get aroused enough.

Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature controlled by Democratic super-majorities that allow them to do anything they want with barely whimpers from the Republicans had backed down on making the state's public access law, the Ralph M. Brown Act, optional at the discretion of each and every government agency.

In a word, they had wanted to make public access meaningless, but lost their nerve when they saw the public reaction might bring down their whole house of cards.

Still, the delight taken in seeing the all-powerful slinking away in humiliation was largely misplaced.

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When it comes to open and transparent government, California is as bad as it gets, ranking 49th in the nation with only frigid North Dakota more disrespectful of the public's right to know.

Just two months ago, the nonpartisan U.S. Public Interest Research Group reported that, under Brown's leadership, California had fallen from 43rd place with a "D- grade" to become one of only five "F States" that have "limited and hard to use" websites, fail to provide information on the "public benefits of economic development" by recipient or make their "tax expenditure report available."

California was only "one of two states in the country without searchable vendor-specific spending information."

The assault on the public's right to know by the governor and his pals comes at the very moment when we are learning the federal government is using a million people with security clearances like Pvt. Bradley Manning and high school dropout Edward Snowden to track our phone and Internet activity, even sending up surveillance drones to keep an eye on some of us in case the video cameras everywhere in public places and private businesses miss something.

The governor justified his Brown Act attack in his budget message in January as a way to save money since the state is supposed to foot the bill for all compliance costs.

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