March 19

Orange County Register: "Government gradually becoming less opaque"

Transparent government is essential to democracy. "Transparency is such a wonderful word," James Mayer told us; he's the executive director of California Forward, a reform group that just released a new report, "The State of Transparency in California in 2013."

"It's not about knocking on a door. It's about looking through a window," he said.

Despite the federal Freedom of Information Act and the California Public Records Act, journalists and other citizens frequently have been frustrated in attempts to get government documents to see what's going on. Usually, forms have to be filled out and delivered to a government bureaucrat, then copying costs must be paid. The information could be about budgets and salaries; agency policies and implementation; and records of meetings.

Mr. Mayer's metaphor is excellent: Instead of people having to knock on a government door—sometimes pounding on it for days—the information should be readily available on the Internet. "This report really is emblematic about a bigger conversation," he said. "It's turning around the relation of government to the people, who had to ask for the information. The new paradigm is that government has an obligation to keep it open, keep it available. Now, it's hide-and-seek. It's trying to find a needle in a haystack. The public should be engaged."

For the 2013 report, California Forward found some decent progress in transparency in California.


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"Voters experienced the first dividends of citizen-drawn legislative districts, and robust new tools were launched to track compensation of public employees," the report found.

A good example of this transparency is the website of Orange County government, ocgov.com. On the front page, listed under the "Popular" heading, is "Employment Compensation & Employment Contracts." Clicking there leads to documents of the compensation of county employees. That's a big improvement from the old method, where we went to the county offices in Santa Ana to pick up a large spreadsheet.

The report continued, "At the other end of the spectrum, the scandal at the California Department of Parks and Recreation brought the entire state financial reporting structure under scrutiny." And it noted that state Controller John Chiang is busy putting more of his department's data online, in particular, information on the compensation of state and local officials.

More can be done. The report decried something we have written about many times: the "gut and amend" process in the California Legislature, in which a bill's contents are replaced, sometimes completely, in the waning days of a legislative session, with citizens—and even the legislators themselves—having little or no notice or time to read the new wording before a vote is taken. We favor a reform that, for example, would require that a bill must be printed and put online at least three days before it is put to a vote.

All in all, California, the state that still dominates the U.S. Internet industry, is moving in the direction of putting online more of the information that citizens, after all, have paid for. The veils of secrecy all need to be pulled aside.

We favor requiring that a bill must be printed and put online at least three days before it is put to a vote in the Legislature.

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March 21

The Desert Sun: "Consolidate California community colleges"

California community colleges should consolidate their administrations to save money and provide more classes. It may be the best opportunity to turn around the decline of the largest system of higher education in the United States.

About 2.4 million students attend 112 California community colleges. However, since 2007 state support of community colleges has dropped from a peak of $3.9 billion to $2.6 billion last year. Course offerings have dropped by nearly a quarter since 2008. More than 470,000 students are on waiting lists for classes.

This has a dramatic impact on young people trying to get started on their careers or hoping to move on to four-year universities. It's extremely frustrating for would-be students to have their dreams put on hold, and it's bad for the economy to slow the creation of productive workers. 

A California Watch report published in The Desert Sun on Monday estimated that consolidation of administrations could save tens of millions of dollars. The opportunity seems particularly rich in Riverside County. There are three community college districts that operate five major campuses and several satellites. They are operated by three boards of trustees and three administrations with a total of 130 executives.

Consolidation could save $4.9 million a year, according to California Watch, which could pay for 960 more courses.

Community colleges were born in 1907, when the California Legislature approved "postgraduate courses of study" at high schools similar to courses offered in the first two years at universities. The program expanded with the Junior College Act of 1917 and grew dramatically because of the GI Bill at the end of World War II.

Perhaps because of that origin, the administration of community colleges has never been as centralized as the California State University and University of California systems.

Of the 72 districts that operate 112 community college campuses, 49 of them run a single campus. Of those, 40 of them are within 20 miles of another district office.

Riverside County has:

—Riverside Community College, with an enrollment of 19,000 and projected buildout of 25,000.

—Mt. San Jacinto Community College operates campuses in San Jacinto, Menifee, Temecula and Banning. It has 19,000 students and expects to expand to serve 39,000.

—The Desert Community College District operates College of the Desert. Most of its 13,000 students attend the Palm Desert campus, but it is building new campuses in Indio and Palm Springs. When those are complete, the district could double its capacity. But unless it takes the steps to provide more classes, construction is pointless.

Gregory Gray, chancellor of the Riverside Community College District, enthusiastically supports looking into consolidation. He believes the savings could be higher than what California Watch predicted, as much as $7 million in Riverside County alone.

The Desert Sun also doesn't believe consolidation should stop at the county line. Starting in 1967, the Desert Community College District operated classes in the Morongo Basin in the High Desert of San Bernardino County.

But in 1999, legislation created the Copper Mountain Community College District and a new college.

While it's a source of community pride, it's a glaring example of inefficiency. It has only 3,000 students—the second smallest enrollment in the state—but it has nine administrators and faculty who make more than $100,000. Because its small size, the cost per student is $8,200, about 40 percent higher than the state average of $5,700.

There also could be opportunities to the west with the San Bernardino Community College District and Chaffey College.

The districts could be led by one five-member board of trustees, saving on stipends and elections. The state pays for 442 trustees and spends an average of $5 million on largely obscure elections.

The potential for savings is obvious and enormous. The Desert Sun encourages legislative and educational leaders to pursue the idea aggressively.

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March 19

Los Angeles Daily News: "Academics and lawmakers collide, online"

University of California faculty leaders reacted with outrage last week when a legislator suggested a paradigm shift in public higher education.

It almost doesn't matter what the suggestion was. It was ever thus when academics at the august university feel they are being pushed around by the Sacramento electeds. They are the doctors of philosophy, and they're not going to let some baby-kisser tell them how to impart the wisdom of the ages. The fights have been going on for as long as there has been public higher education in the state of California. That means the power struggle has been going on for 145 years.

This time, though, the fight goes to both the high-tech future of pedagogy and the down-and-dirty ways education is paid for. Darrell Steinberg, the president pro tem of the state Senate, was touting his bill that would allow UC and California State University students who can't get the classes they need because of budget cuts to take them instead from other colleges. Schools old and new, famous or not, with old-fashioned classrooms or in the newfangled manner of classes streaming through a computer. And here's the kick in the head: They could include online courses from the dreaded for-profit schools trimming the trees of traditional groves of academe.

This brings up "grave concerns," say the professors. They talked about "the clear self-interest of for-profit corporations in promoting the privatization of public higher education through this legislation." And there is that. But this is really an old battle fought with new weapons. For generations, the University of California and the Cal States as well have been denying transfer credits for courses taught on other campuses simply because they weren't presented by faculty they consider up to their levels. "Some junior—er, community—college version of trigonometry? Not up to snuff. Take it again here in Westwood. "

In fact, trigonometry is pretty much trigonometry, and there are great teachers and awful ones at every school.

What this spat is really about is California's will or lack of it to provide enough funding to maintain both high standards and enough courses at public universities so that students can move on after four years. The solution: Cut the bureaucracy at the UC and CSU headquarters, where there are dozens of non-academic vice presidents of nonsense and plow the money back into teaching, where it belongs.

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March 18

San Jose Mercury News: Supreme Court should declare gay marriage legal

When the U.S. Supreme Court agreed last year to take up Proposition 8, its ruling on California's gay marriage ban was expected to be a turning point in the struggle for equal marriage rights.

But now that the time is near, with oral arguments next week, a different truth is emerging: It almost doesn't matter.

Like a Berlin Wall that once seemed impenetrable but ended up crumbling in a day, the conviction that marriage rights should be available only to straight couples is disintegrating before our eyes. When a U.S. president flips 180 degrees, as Barack Obama has done, and when conservative icons from Clint Eastwood to former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman stand with him and with gay rights activists, you know it's game over.

If the Supreme Court finds that the Constitutional guarantee of equal rights does not apply to marriage, public opinion will do the job. Polls show that California voters would handily support gay marriage today—young people tend to wonder what all the fuss is about—and nine other states already have legalized it.

The speed of this shift has been stunning. More than 130 moderate and conservative Republicans, including Eastwood, have signed a brief to the Supreme Court opposing Proposition 8. Meg Whitman, who supported Proposition 8 when she ran for governor in 2010, now opposes it. Just last week, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a vocal opponent of gay marriage and adoptions, announced a change of heart: His son, a junior at Yale, had told his father he is gay.

The court also will hear arguments next week challenging the Defense of Marriage Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, which defines marriage as being between a man and a woman. Clinton now says he thinks DOMA is "incompatible with our Constitution" because it denies rights and benefits to gays and lesbians that are available to married couples.

A majority of Californians agrees. A February Field poll found that 61 percent approve of same-sex marriage, more than double the support when the question was first posed in 1977. National polls also are showing a majority in support for the first time. A recent Washington Post/ABC News survey found 51 percent in favor and 47 percent opposed to gay marriage.

Public opinion is unlikely to sway the Supreme Court, but Obama's Justice Department has filed briefs against DOMA and Proposition 8. That's unusual, and it's hard to say how it will play. The justices have options that could maintain the legal status quo, make narrow changes or declare that limits on marriage rights are unconstitutional.

We supported gay marriage before DOMA and before Gavin Newsom shook up the status quo with his San Francisco weddings. We see no downside; society gains from the stability of committed families. Generations from now, gay marriage will be as accepted as interracial marriage, which once was illegal in much of this country.

The justices can't stop this evolution, but they could accelerate it. We hope that's what they do.

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March 15

Marin Independent Journal: "Marin man a fine pick for state park panel"

Gov. Jerry Brown appears to have found a perfect choice for the state Park and Recreation Commission—Ernest Chung of Kentfield.

Public confidence in state parks' leadership has been shaken by the discovery of more than $20 million in unaccounted funds stashed away in the agency's coffers as the state was facing a deep budget crisis. Lawmakers ordered parks to be closed, and volunteers rallied to raise millions of dollars to keep many of those parks open.

Not surprisingly, many people felt they had been double-crossed by the very agency they were trying to help.

You can't blame them.

Chung understands.

But he also didn't let the scandal deter him from working to help raise the support and money needed to keep China Camp State Park from being closed, a victim of state budget cuts.

Chung and other volunteers mounted an impressive effort to keep this important park open and accessible. It is a resource for enjoyment of our bayfront and for its historical and cultural significance.

That's what makes Chung a fine choice for a seat on the commission.

He knows business and budgets. He is a former managing director of KPMG Consulting and a former manager at Chevron Corp.

He has been chairman of the Marin Parks Association and Friends of China Camp which have helped keep China Camp, Olompali and Tomales Bay state parks open.

The organization's volunteers have also made improvements and repairs that have long been needed, but had not reached the top of the agency's lengthy to-do list.

Adding Chung to the commission should help bolster confidence that public support won't be undermined by bureaucratic bookkeeping shenanigans in Sacramento.

Thousands of people across California are donating their time and writing checks to help keep their state parks from being closed. That sense of spirit deserves to be represented and have a voice on the commission.

Chung will make sure parks and people come first.

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March 20

Oakland Tribune: "Must set better goals for California prison realignment"

What does success look like?

Any Management 101 textbook will cite this as a bedrock question that must be answered before undertaking a major project. But it is clear that the state of California failed to do so before implementing its historic switch of confinement responsibilities 17 months ago.

The Legislature should resolve—and the governor should agree—to correct that oversight before taking any further steps to amend the law that went into effect in October 2011.

The realignment, as it is called, was offered as the collaborative answer by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature to fix a horribly overcrowded state prison system that the federal courts said violated laws for confinement of prisoners.

Realignment transferred responsibility of many supposedly lower-threat prisoners from state prisons to local jails or local probation. The state sent money to the local jurisdictions to handle the costs. The move has successfully lowered the state's numbers, but it ballooned populations in local jails as well as increased the burden on local probation operations.

Brown and his administration have told us that realignment has been a major success. The problem is that the public just has to take their word for it, because there is little empirical data to back the claim.

Most of the information about the realignment is anecdotal and many of those anecdotes are not very pretty. There have been some tragic cases of attacks by recently-freed prisoners, an apparent dramatic increase in the number of sex offenders disabling their GPS monitoring devices, spikes in property crimes in some areas as well as what seem like spikes in the number of homeless encampments, just to name a few. But specific numbers on all of these range from sketchy to nonexistent.

So much so, in fact, that many victim-rights groups are pressuring lawmakers to radically reform the realignment plan. Legislators from both sides of the aisle have already begun offering changes to the realignment law.

On top of that, the Sacramento Bee has reported that Brown told a private meeting with Stanford law professors and their students last month that he was concerned with how counties were managing their jail population. He later confirmed that he is considering legislative modification to address some of the clear problems.

And, Jeffrey Beard, California's corrections secretary, also agreed that the state had not explicitly defined "what is the criteria for success."

While there is certainly enough smoke in the anecdotes to warrant modification of the law, it seems to us that there is even a greater need for everyone involved to step back, take a deep breath and then set about crafting legislation that will spell out what measures California, the federal government and the public should use to measure success of realignment. It must set some specific and concrete goals around which any corrective legislation can be fashioned.

Only then should the Legislature begin examining and voting on the changes proposed by its members.