Only in California would discussions about curtailing the public’s ability to monitor state and local government include a state commission accused of secret backroom deals.
Members of the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) were part of a group of elected and appointed government officers cited in a report by the Little Hoover Commission, urging that the state relax rules about holding private discussions about policy. The commission agreed, recently recommending that open meeting laws, the Ralph M. Brown Act and the Bagley-Keene Act, be modified. Both Acts currently prohibit a majority of members to meet and discuss an issue outside of a public meeting.
Elaborating on remarks from testimony at an August 2014 meeting with the Commission, PUC Commissioner Mike Florio said, “It is sometimes the case that everyone in the audience at a commission meeting knows what the outcome of a vote on a particular matter will be before it occurs – everyone, that is, except the five commissioners and their advisors.”
But, according to news reports, the restrictive rules didn’t stop PUC commissioners from coming to decisions behind closed doors without the public's knowledge. Federal and state officials are investigating alleged improper ties between CPUC regulators, including former president Michael Peevey, and industry executives.
“Glaringly absent from the [Little Hoover] report…is any mention of the scandals involving the City of Bell, the secret lease of the Los Angeles Coliseum by the Coliseum Commission or allegations of cozy backroom dealings that led to the Chair of the PUC stepping down - all occurring with the current serial meeting standards in place,” said Jim Ewert, general counsel to the California Newspaper Publishers Association.
He added: “The core principle of the state's open meeting laws - that the public has a presumptive right of access to the meetings of state and local agencies - is being seriously threatened by” this proposal.
In addition to the commission, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, populated by government representatives, held a workshop on open government reform and came to the same conclusions as the Little Hoover Commission. Present at the meeting? A PUC director.