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Government Transparency Saves California Money

by Terri Harel, published

Cal Watchdog, a web-based journalism site dedicated to improving government transparency, highlighted an important, but often overlooked, provision in Governor Brown's controversial Proposition 30. The provision will restore the state's open meeting law, which requires governments to make public meeting agenda's at least 72 hour prior to their commencement.

The important law is meant to improve government transparency and give the public ample time and notice should they wish to attend. The law offers an important protection to citizens' and democracy's coveted participation in governmental process. The Brown Act, which had previously required open meetings, was originally put in place in 2003 but suffered temporary suspension this fiscal year. The open meeting law was controversial because it demanded money, which has been difficult for California to come by. In the original Act, the law required the state to reimburse local governments for any incurred costs for drafting meeting agendas.

In August, OMB Watch reported the State had incurred a debt to local governments of approximately $96 million in reimbursement costs due to the open government law. However, a 2011 Legislative Analyst's Office report revealed those incurred costs, as reported by local governments, seemed grossly inflated. The LAO's assessment of the suspension noted such action was both confusing to the public and misleading for local governments.

The suspension seemed to indicate to local governments such processes, which are imperative to transparency and democracy, could be perceived as optional. The LAO proposed shifting the cost of announcing and creating agendas for open meetings from the State to the agency organizing the meeting (i.e. in most cases local government). According the LAO's assessment, this would save the state up to $63 million and require local governments to take responsibility for public inclusion.

Not only does a reinstatement of the provision save the federal government money, requiring government transparency should translate into money saved money for all levels of government. Initially California was sacrificing transparency for budgetary reason, but by raising government responsibility within local agencies too, long term financial benefits (not to mention benefits to the public from their increased ability to participate in government) could emerge.

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