Yee offers a package of government sunshine bills

Sunshine is the best safeguard against corruption, incompetence, and self-dealing.

California Sen.Leland Yee (D-SF) may have finished in a disappointing fifth place in the mayor’s race, garnering just 7.5 percent of the first place votes. But now he’s back to working in a realm where he’s really distinguished himself as a politician: opening up government agencies to greater sunshine and public scrutiny.

When the California Legislature reconvenes tomorrow (Wed/4) morning, Yee says he will introduce a series of bills giving the public better access to information. That builds on a record for championing sunshine, which earned Yee a James Madison Freedom of Information Award from the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2010.

In the past, he’s taken on the University of California and California State University systems, including a measure last year aimed at the latter for trying to keep secret high speaker’s fees paid to Sarah Palin. This time, Yee’s first target is the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and its cozy and secretive approach to regulating Pacific Gas & Electric and other utilities. 

Senate Bill 1000 would subject the CPUC to the same California Public Records Act disclosure requirements as other state agencies, ending special exemptions granted to the agency back in the 1950s. CPUC documents are assumed to be confidential unless overtly made public by the CPUC board -- the polar opposite standard of the CPRA, which assumes all documents are public unless they meet specific exemption requirements.

As the Bay Guardian, San Francisco Chronicle, and other media outlets have reported in the wake of PG&E’s deadly gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, the CPUC has blocked release of incident reports, pipeline safety inspections, audits, and other information that could show what other areas might be at risk of a similar tragedy and evidence of exposed PG&E’s negligence in the explosion, as a federal review panel concluded. A CPUC spokesperson said the agency is studying the legislation and didn’t have an immediate comment. 

“The CPUC is supposed to be there to protect us and not as a barrier to public access,” Yee said in a public statement.

SB 1001 would double the $50 annual registration fee paid by lobbyists in California and use that revenue to improve the Cal-Access campaign finance and lobbying database operated by the Secretary of State’s Office. That system has periodically crashed in recent months because of outdated technology. 

“It is simply unacceptable that the public cannot access basic information on campaign contributions and lobbying activity,” said Yee.  “The crash of Cal-Access not only prevents public access, it means government is not being transparent or being held accountable.”

SB 1002 would require that when government agencies are asked for public documents that are available in electronic form, that they do so using formats that are easily searchable by keyword using current technology. That has been a big issue for years in San Francisco, where sunshine advocates have long called for the city to be more user-friendly when it complies with the Sunshine Ordinance.

“Producing a 2,000 page electronic document that cannot be searched or sorted is inadequate and almost useless,” said Yee. “For too long, many government agencies – either by choice or inertia – have been living in the Stone Age when it comes to producing public documents.”

SF 2003 would amend the Brown Act open meeting law to allow for injunctive or declaratory relief for past violations, thus preventing agencies from repeatedly violating that law. It addresses a loophole created by the court’s interpretation of the act in its McKee v. County of Tulare decision. 

Finally, Yee is also pushing for the Assembly to approve Senate Constitutional Amendment 7, which the Senate approved last year. It would exempt the Brown Act from requirements that the state pay for mandates on local government, which last year caused the Commission on State Mandates to pay out $20 million from the state budget to local governments for acts such as posting agendas and which has caused the Brown Act to be temporarily suspended during past state fiscal crises.

“Our open meeting laws are too important to be made optional every time the state runs short of money,” Yee said. “SCA 7 will ensure government agencies provide the public the information they deserve.”

Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, praised Yee’s efforts.

“It’s a very valuable and important package of measures to plug loopholes, some recently created and some that have been with us for too long,” Scheer told us.

While most of the legislation takes on fairly narrow issues, Scheer said each address very real and important problems that journalists and the general public have encountered. “None would be particularly difficult to implement,” he said. “But collectively, they would make it easier to hold public officials accountable.”