Sunday, January 21, 2007

Audit reveals lack of progress; counties refuse to meet requirements

Open forum on foster care:
State agencies ignore the law -- and the public
Leno, Mark. San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 21, 2007, pg. E7.

The California Public Records Act has been the law in this state since 1968 and was upgraded by voters to a constitutional right by the passage of Proposition 59 in 2004. In January 2006, Cal-Aware, a nonprofit public access advocacy group, conducted an audit of state agency compliance with rudimentary requirements of our landmark act. That audit revealed that most state agencies are not complying with the substance or spirit of the law. The average grade for these state agencies was a dismal 37 percent -- a failing grade by any standard.

In response, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger promptly issued an executive order requiring the prominent posting of the public records act guidelines (a requirement which has been state law since 1968) at all state agencies and the designation and training of staff to handle these requests. Unfortunately, a subsequent audit by Cal Aware this last August revealed little change in the performance of most state agencies with troubling misinformation about agency obligations under the act displayed employees, even after receiving further training.

To address the failed results of the January 2006 audit, I authored legislation last year in an attempt to bring our state agencies into better compliance with the act. One component of AB2927 would have required state agencies with Web sites to prominently include on their homepages a "Public Record Center" with a link of whom to contact, how to request public records and an HTML form on which to make a specific public records act request online.

Additionally, the bill would have required the state Department of Justice to convene a task force of state agency representatives, public right-to-know consumer advocates and privacy rights advocates to make recommendations for a statutory standard governing the posting of public record act requests and denials and/or public documents that are subject to disclosure under the Public Records Act on the Internet Web sites of state agencies. The state Justice Department would then report its findings to the Legislature.

AB2927 enjoyed uncommon unanimous bipartisan support in both houses of the Legislature.

Unfortunately, Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill. His veto message made reference to his executive order suggesting that the situation had already been successfully addressed.

As CalAware's latest audit reveals, if the governor truly believes that his executive order resolved his administration's failure to comply with the public records act, we all should be very troubled and concerned. For there to be transparency and accountability in the operations of our state government, we need action, not just reassuring words from our governor.

Why should we be troubled and concerned? There are dozens of answers to that question, one of which was recently highlighted in a Chronicle editorial last month. In that piece, it was noted that California does not know how many foster children die each year, despite a 2004 state law that mandates counties to reveal pertinent and basic information regarding the death of these children.

Christina Riehl of the Children's Advocacy Institute was quoted as saying "There's no way to get information without going to the courts." If we have in statute and in our California Public Records Act the requirement that counties release the names, dates of births and dates of deaths of foster children who die in our system, and we still have to go to court to access this public information, then we are facing a number of problems.

Interestingly, in response to this editorial, state Department of Social Services' interim director Cliff Allenby wrote, "The state Department of Social Services is dedicated to transparency and the public accountability that comes with full disclosure." But a review of CalAware's January audit of this department reveals that it scored only a 10 of 100 points, an F-. Even after the governor's executive order, this department scored 75 points, a B-, in CalAware's August audit. Keep in mind that these audits only tested for the most basic compliance of our public records act, such as whether the agency posted its guidelines of how to access public records. If interim director Allenby is sincere in his dedication to "transparency and public accountability," he has a long way to go.

To track the well-being of foster children in our care, or the myriad other operations of a government as large and complex as ours, we need a public records act with some teeth. AB2927 would have served that purpose. Until we take that step, all the new laws legislators may craft to address serious problems with our state's operations will prove to be meaningless


Post a Comment

<< Home