California Forward will often ask folks what they think on certain issues, whether it’s on social media, in person or through an email. Never have we gotten such an overwhelming response, however, than when we sent a simple survey asking people to give us feedback on our Path Toward Trust.
You know the background. Three California State Senators have gotten mixed up with the law this year. Two are currently indicted under federal charges, including arms trafficking in one case. All three have been suspended from their legislative duties.
Rather than allow a few bad apples to influence public perception on the whole barrel of hard-working, well-meaning lawmakers in Sacramento, it is CA Fwd’s position that strong, concise and immediate reform to increase transparency in the Legislature would signal a willingness to self-regulate in the face of alleged corruption.
More than 900 Californians on CA Fwd’s mailing list took the time to fill out the seven question survey. More than 400 took even more time to offer some open-ended thoughts of their own on how the platform might be expanded or improved upon.
“These weren’t random Californians,” said CA Fwd President and CEO Jim Mayer. “Rather, the respondents are among the most engaged Californians. Still, rather than being cynical, they enthusiastically supported simple transparency. They overwhelmingly supported reliable, frequent and online reporting of campaign contributions and economic interest statements. They believe legislation should be public before a vote. These Californians believe sunshine makes for a great state and good government.“
Sometimes an idea can seem like common sense, but doesn’t actually achieve anything approaching “common” status until it’s given the litmus test 900 politically-minded folks can provide.
While the statements themselves offer little gray area, how people responded collectively to each and to the entire survey nevertheless provide some valuable insight into populist mentality at this critical juncture for the Legislature. Here are the responses:
The state should invest in modernizing California’s campaign finance and lobbying database to make the system reliable and the information more easily accessible. (60% strongly agree, 23% somewhat agree)
Cal-ACCESS has clearly lost the confidence of many in California. Gov. Brown has called it ”outdated and cumbersome.” Lobbyists, campaign consultants and legislators want it modernized. Additionally 83 percent of those who responded were in favor of it as well, reinforcing the belief around the Capitol that as a tool, it’s in desperate need of an upgrade.
Conflict-of-interest disclosures for public officials should be available publicly in a central, searchable online database. (76% strongly agree, 14% somewhat agree)
It’s hard getting 90 percent of any group of people to agree on something, but almost 800 people responded favorably to changing how Form 700s, also known as Statements of Economic Interests (SEI), are made available for public perusal. Having this conflict-of-interest information available online and fully searchable is a huge step toward increasing accountability among among public officials. Having information at the fingertips of the general public and the media versus having it sitting on paper in a county clerk’s filing cabinet occupy very different spots on the scale of deterrence.
A bill should be publicly available in print and online for at least three days (72 hours) before lawmakers can vote on it. (82% strongly agree, 11% somewhat agree)
This represents probably the most common sense tenet of CA Fwd’s Path Toward Trust. Few practices undermine transparency and accountability among those serving in Sacramento than gutting a bill a mere hours before the end of a legislative session and amending it with something far different than what was under public review prior. A whopping 93 percent of those who filled out the survey agreed.
We reached out to Sen. Lois Wolk, author of SCA 10, which would enshrine the 72 hour public review process, with these results and she offered these thoughts: “Establishing a strong 72-hour in print rule is a rare opportunity for both parties to join together in making a common sense reform in favor of good government and the public interest. I am encouraged but not surprised by the strong public support for this simple rule to increase transparency and reduce the opportunity for the mischief that can occur when major legislative changes are rushed through in secret without the opportunity for all legislators and the public to read and thoughtfully consider legislation before voting.”
If the state no longer covers the cost, local governments and special districts should continue to comply with state laws that require public access to government records and meetings. (63% strongly agree, 19% somewhat agree)
Once again, more than 80 percent of respondents, or over 700 people, want public access to government records and meetings without much care about who pays for it. It is the public’s right to know, and the California Forward Action Fund has endorsed Proposition 42 on the June 2014 Ballot, which would mandate exactly what is stated in the question: The Brown Open Meeting Act and the Public Records Act must be adhered to by local governments even if the state is no longer footing the bill.
Councilwoman Susan Brooks of Rancho Palos Verdes, which has made great strides in transparency during her two-year tenure, had this to say about making meeting agendas available to the public: “cost to the City is negligible, and the residents have come to expect it. It allows the public to monitor and attend meetings where there is something on the agenda that is of interest to them.” She notes that the Public Records Act is a little more complicated from a cost and man-hours standpoint, but she supports the public’s right to know nevertheless if frivolous requests can be controlled.
A state lawmaker who is suspended from the Legislature should continue receiving his/her salary and benefits. (63% strongly disagree, 18% somewhat disagree)
This question is a tricky one as the severity of the charges against Sen. Leland Yee may be obscuring the notion of innocent until proven guilty. However, there is a difference between paid, unpaid leave and expulsion from the Senate. Should they should have to resign until convicted? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean they get paid to do nothing – and it doesn’t mean they should be able to exhaust all appeals before losing the position and stop receiving a paycheck to defend criminal charges they have been convicted of.
It’s here that some of the open responses to our survey shed further light on the statistics as several suggested that if they continue to receive pay but are convicted, then they should have to pay the money back.
Legislative employees should be legally protected from retaliation by California’s Whistleblower Protection Act. (74% strongly agree, 14% somewhat agree)
For the sixth question in a row, in excess of 80 percent of respondents said they would be in favor of what is proposed in the Path Toward Trust. Because the State Auditor, who works for the Legislature, would be investigating such claims, it presents a conflict of interest that has so far prevented staff from falling under whistleblower protection, but the sentiment is there nonetheless. Which is a great segue to the final question…
The state Legislature should immediately establish an independent Legislative Ethics office. (50% strongly agree, 24% somewhat agree, 16% neutral)
The responses here are perhaps the most interesting. Answers to questions dealing with potential individual transgressions were not split; most people were clearly in favor of greater transparency and increased responsibility for individuals outright. But here 16 percent stayed neutral and 24 percent only somewhat agreed with creating the new office. This would suggest that while people believe something more must be done, they don’t necessarily think creating a new office inside the Legislature is the answer.
Furthermore, the two questions dealing with individual data (SEIs) or actions (gut and amend) are where agreement spiked over 90 percent. And respondents handily overlooked “innocent until proven guilty” when asked if suspended lawmakers should in fact be docked pay and benefits. If nothing else, these answers taken together reinforce the damage a few allegedly bad apples can do to an entire governing body’s reputation.
The time for these reforms are now. With responses like this, the call to action will certainly be hard to ignore. CA Fwd is sharing these results with state legislators.
One final thought: Those 400+ responses that were given about other ideas for reform have some interesting ideas within them, beyond what CA Fwd proposed in the Path Toward Trust. You can expect to see some of those in future news stories that CA Fwd produces about restoring trust in California’s government.
Cross-posted at CaFwd Reporting.