Thursday, May 28, 2009

Letter from CSCR to Little Hoover Commission

Here is the text of a letter sent by the California Stem Report today to the Little Hoover Commission concerning its refusal to release its staff recommendation reports.

May 28, 2009

To the members of the Little Hoover Commission:

In 2004 California voters overwhelmingly approved (by 83 percent) a change in the state Constitution called the Sunshine Initiative. It established a “broadly construed” guarantee that you and I have a right to know what the government is doing, why it is doing it and how.

Today the Little Hoover Commission, a body devoted to good government, has a chance to pioneer an important aspect of the implementation of the voter's will.

It can do that by publicly releasing the Commission's staff draft reports on the important issues that the Commission examines and which all of California faces.

The issue of staff reports came sharply into focus just yesterday (Wednesday May 27) at a meeting of the Little Hoover Subcommittee looking into the $3 billion California stem cell agency, an extraordinary body unprecedented in state history.

Interested parties, including the stem cell agency, gathered to examine the staff report on the research effort and to make responsible, well-considered comments. Some of the individuals asked for copies of the report in order to inform their thinking. No was the answer. California citizens were told that it is the long-standing tradition of the Little Hoover Commission not to disclose publicly the written staff recommendations. Instead stem cell agency representatives and others were only allowed to hear a rapid-fire oral presentation, necessarily much briefer than what we understand was a 20-plus page document.

However, that practice – a policy of the Little Hoover Commission – flies in the face of the state's Constitution, which now states, as the result of the 2004 change:

“The people have the right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people's business, and, therefore, the meetings of public bodies and the writings of public officials and agencies shall be open to public scrutiny.”

We understand the sensitivities involved in making staff reports public. They are not the work of the Little Hoover Commission until modified and acted on by the full commission. But those concerns pale in the face of the benefits.

Publicly releasing the draft reports will be much fairer for such entities as the California stem cell agency (the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine) and any others that the Little Hoover Commission examines. With the release of the reports, they will have a chance to respond more intelligently to staff comments, critical or otherwise. Factual errors will come to attention earlier. The public will have a better chance to make more thoughtful comments. Indeed, public release of the staff reports will help to generate more public attention on the important issues studied by the Little Hoover Commission and will enhance its credibility and increase its impact. The issues will be more widely aired, building support for the Commission's ultimate recommendations.

California state departments have long used the terminology of “draft” to avoid public release of important documents. Speaking from years of experience with state government and the news business, my conclusion is that the use of such terminology is based mainly on timidity and unnecessary anxiety about the impact of the release of the documents. Doing the public's business will never be a tidy process, nor is winning public support. But withholding information -- and secrecy -- is a sure road to breeding cynicism and virulent suspicion of government, however well-intentioned public officials' actions may be.

I come to these judgments after decades as a California journalist, a longtime editor at The Sacramento Bee (business, special projects) and former UPI reporter in the state Capitol. My comments are also informed by two years as a press aide with former Gov. Jerry Brown. I do not represent the stem cell agency. Indeed, my blog on the agency –- now in its fourth year – has been expunged by the agency from its informational clippings, including other news reports and press releases, distributed at state expense to its board members.

I wish I could be with you today to make this presentation personally but my physician needs to see me on a matter she thinks is important. I have asked Stuart Drown to distribute this letter to you today in hopes of moving forward on implementation of the Sunshine Initiative.

I urge the Commission to release publicly its staff recommendations in a timely fashion. By doing so, the Little Hoover Commission can set an example for the rest of the state and take a first step towards restoring public confidence in government.

Thank you for your consideration.


David Jensen, Publisher/Editor
California Stem Cell Report Sphere: Related Content

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