The Mt. Diablo Unified School District in central Contra Costa County has a long and dismal reputation for lacking in even basic transparency.
But it seems to have outdone itself recently by making a member of its Bond Oversight Committee use the Public Records Act to acquire documents she needed to monitor how public money is spent. She got the records after forking over $150.
Sometimes outrage is the only appropriate response to a situation and this is one of them. Government entities are required by law to have public committees to oversee how they spend borrowed money.
In Mt. Diablo's case, this involves borrowing $348 million for capital projects that voters approved last year by passing Measure C.
Bond oversight committees do critical work. They need to have distance from people who spend money and stay outside the clubs and cliques of the bureaucracy. The greater that distance, the better the chances the committee members do their jobs effectively.
But the in case of Mt. Diablo, a certified public accountant and certified fraud investigator, Alicia Minyen, won appointment to the oversight committee and then had the audacity to ask a lot of questions and request detailed spending records. Imagine that. Questions. Details. Accountability. Transparency.
Here is what the law says about oversight committees:
Its purpose "shall be to inform the public concerning the expenditure of bond revenues. (It) shall actively review and report on the proper expenditure of taxpayers' money for school construction." The law requires school districts to provide the committee "with any necessary technical assistance and shall provide administrative assistance in furtherance of its purpose."
Seems pretty simple, right? Committee members get whatever they need to do their jobs.
These rules apparently don't make officials at the Mt. Diablo district very happy though. Its lawyer, Greg Rolen, dug up 1,496 pages of records more than a month after Minyen asked for them and then demanded payment: 10 cents a page.
Minyen should not have had to file a records request for the information in the fist place. Charging members for the records is simply an indication of how badly Mt. Diablo is failing the public. It raises a great deal of suspicion over what the district may be hiding and illustrates a galling lack of common sense in its top administrators.
Last week, an attorney who counsels the district on borrowing money said no Measure C funding has been misspent. Maybe it hasn't, but the idea that it would be difficult for an overseer to get access to documents to confirm those words is appalling. The lawyer simply said it. It is up the oversight committee to confirm it.
Rolen's fee demand undermines public confidence in his integrity and, to me, at least, raises serious questions about his fitness for public service. Let's face it, a fee demand like that only has one purpose -- to make the requester go away.
When the bond measure campaign went to voters for permission to borrow the money last year, one of the main benefits from it was promoted as repairs to leaky school roofs and windows. As my colleague Theresa Harrington recently reported, campaign brochures failed to mention they want to spend $88 million of the money on solar energy projects.
Harrington has filed a PRA request of her own asking for documents showing an accounting of the so called "soft costs" of borrowing the money -- how much of it went to lawyers and consultants and the like.
What this is really all about is government debt. That's what bonds are -- borrowed money on which taxpayers pay the premium and the interest. You may recall that the federal government's debt has been in the news a lot lately. The issue of local government debt is fundamentally the same.
You are stuck paying it off and you have the absolute right to know how the money was spent.
At Mt. Diablo, Minyen is apparently the only one who gets that. Those standing in her way to fully understand the debt deserve a serious downgrade.
Thomas Peele is an investigative reporter for the Bay Area News Group and teaches a class on public records at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him at twitter.com/thomas_peele.