Come June, you can send a message about transparency. Vote yes on Prop. 42. Tell local governments it's their responsibility to build -- and pay for -- a culture of openness.
You can also strip from Gov. Jerry Brown, and any of his successors, the ability to gut the public records act by cooking up another cockamamie, disingenuous scheme to turn out the lights.
When Brown wanted to make the transparency law a "best practice," or an option, for local governments last year, he and his legislative minions claimed it was about money.
Under the principle of state mandate, state pay, Sacramento is supposed to reimburse local governments for complying with state laws. But reimbursements for PRA and open meeting law compliance are already nonexistent. Just because state government is supposed to pay doesn't mean it does.
The more cynical among us saw something else: a play to make government harder to access and understand. Brown and his crew eventually backed down after a shock wave of criticism.
Now, Prop. 42 can end this silly "who pays for it?" issue and California voters can ensure transparency going forward, even though the PRA remains a weak law riddled with loopholes.
Prop. 42 won't remove those loopholes, or force self-interested bureaucrats to take transparency seriously. What it will do really is keep things from getting worse. It won't change that California is full of two-faced leaders when it comes to open and ethical government.
There's Controller John Chiang, who claims to be about accountability yet collects and posts from local governments a hodgepodge of nameless and incomplete compensation data from which the public can determine little.
There's Sen. Mark Leno, who carried Brown's water like a good little subordinate last year when they tried to gut the public records act. Leno's pushing Prop. 42, but his efforts seem more like backpedaling and face saving that a genuine interest in good government.
There's Treasurer Bill Lockyer, who talked tough about transparency and ethics when he was attorney general, but is now willing to sell himself to the highest bidder -- a Boston law firm -- before his elected tenure even ends.
But Prop. 42 is about taking the whims of Sacramento out of local government.
But don't think for a moment that there isn't a lot of moaning going on at the local level. A group called the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials is against Prop. 42. It calls the measure "completely unnecessary" and claims it isn't about transparency but rather money, and that access is already assured by law.
The association could not be more wrong. Brown showed last just how fast he's willing to turn the law off.
But the clerks and elections officials are right when they say that money is at play. But the objections are about money that might have to be diverted from the holy grail of local governments: Payroll.
In so many other places, local governments seem to exist for the public good. Pave roads, fund school lunches, pay teachers more, shrink the number of students per classroom. Those sorts of things. But here, in the Golden paycheck state, bureaucracies seem to exist only for the benefit of the bureaucrats. Fat salaries. Benefits. Pension contributions. Car allowances. Health clubs. Deferred compensation. Management bonuses. Low-interest housing loans.
I've seen governments lately calculate the cost of staff time to comply with records request. But it's not as if those are added costs. The workers are getting paid regardless of what they do; their days are, in fact, fungible.
Is their opposition really about the fear that local resources might have to be diverted from payroll to fund transparency? Or is it a lame excuse about the fear of doing more? Imagine the horror of a shorter lunch break, a longer work day, the taking home of tasks or the trudging into the office -- egad! -- on a weekend. There's a lot of boohoo to their argument.
Another word for it is whining.
Thomas Peele is an investigative reporter for this newspaper and teaches public records at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He is also co-chair of the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California Chapter, Freedom of Information Committee. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at Twitter.com/thomas_peele.