The Importance of Governors And Their Schedules

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

The self-destruction of Mark Sanford raises an issue that usually only gets talked about in newsrooms: the need for governors and other elected executives to put out detailed schedules, and the fact that many of them fail to do so.

Sanford, according to press reports, didn’t release his schedules. Reporters and editors in South Carolina complained, but the issue never attracted public attention. And so the governor of the Palmetto State managed to escape scrutiny of his activities for far too long.

That – and not Sanford’s personal behavior – is the public outrage in this sordid story.

Yes, yes, I’ve heard all the arguments from the staffers who advise governors and elected officials. “Disclosing our full schedule would compromise strategy.” “The governor has the right to secrecy in his deliberations.” “It’s a matter of protecting the governor’s security, though I’m not at liberty to discuss the details…” Blah. Blah. Blah.

Bottom line: you’re an elected official, you represent the public, and you have power over the public. So the public deserves to know where you are and with whom you meet. When you think about it, that’s very basic information, and shouldn’t compromise your ability to get frank advice or develop strategy. One might argue that full disclosure – and the scrutiny that comes with it – will make governors better, by showing which groups have influence and which are being excluded. Governors may be more inclusive – and get better advice – as a result.

But the fact is that few elected officials release detailed schedules. Among the folks who hide what they’re doing from the public is the current governor of California. Yes, he does put out two types of schedules. One is the daily public schedule, which is confined to events that the press can attend. The other schedule is his supposed full schedule, which is available in hard copy for public inspection at the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research in Sacramento. (The governor began doing this only after the passage of a new state public records law, Prop 59, in 2004).

But these schedules aren’t worth much. They omit all kinds of meetings and events, tell you nothing about the subject of a meeting, and don’t tell you who attended. Many meetings are listed just with a time and two words, “PRIVATE EVENT”

Here, for example, is the schedule from April 10, 2008:

10:00 am    STAFF BRIEFING Staff: Susan Kennedy
10:30 am    CONFERENCE CALL. Staff: David Crane
11:00 am    SCHEDULING. Staff: Liz Beisler
11:15 am    PAROLES. Staff: Andrea Hoch
11:30 am    PHOTO OP w/ Bronze Star Recipients. Staff: General Wade
11:45 am    PRIVATE CALL TIME
2:10 pm      EDITORIAL BOARD w/ La Opinion. Location: La Opinion. Staff: Francisco Castillo
3:30 pm      PRESS CONFERENCE re: Prop 1B Location: LA County and USC Medical Center metro stop. Staff: Will Kempton
5:30 pm      PRIVATE EVENT. Staff: Lisa Kalustian
6:15 pm      PRIVATE EVENT

The governor can and should release his real schedule – the one he and his aides work from. Any elected official with executive authority should do the same. To the many who don’t, I’d say this: you deserve every unfounded rumor and every dose of unsourced suspicion coming your way. Especially in times like these, when popular anger and cynicism about government is at high tide, it’s important to give the public as much information as possible.

Members of the press should use the Sanford example to press harder — especially in public forums like press conferences – for detailed accountings of how elected officials spend their time. Feel free to be pointed or even a little nasty: “So we have no schedule and don’t know where you were Thursday, Governor. Were you visiting a girlfriend in Argentina?” In this moment, I suspect sustained pressure of this nature will force more disclosure.

One other note of shame: our president has proven to be a complete hypocrite on this sort of thing. After promising an open administration, the Obama administration is refusing to make public the list of visitors to the White House. My hope is that the White House press corps will take that as a license for even more aggressive snooping and rampant suspicion.

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