California Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed legislation that would create a Wildfire Safety Advisory Board, but allow its members to skirt certain state open-meeting rules.
First, any effort to keep the public in the dark about what their elected representatives are up to is a seriously bad idea.
However, even the governor and his advisers admit that the exclusionary element of the proposal could be changed by lawmakers, who ultimately must accept or reject the legislation.
There are valid reasons that elected officials close the doors to a meeting room, preventing the public from being privy to discussions behind those closed doors. Among those reasons are contract negotiations, discussing legal problems, employee or prospective employee issues, and contracting strategies that could put the board or commission in a bad spot if those strategies are made known to potential bidders.
Every elected body we’ve ever covered has used the executive session to discuss those potentially sensitive matters. The problem is that in too many cases, the closed-door discussions can wander far from such allowable subjects, and discuss matters about which the general public is entitled to have full knowledge.
State and local governments have so-called sunshine laws for very specific reasons, and most of those rules were spawned by too many elected officials hiding behind closed doors to talk about things the public should be in on.
It should be a matter of trust behind an elected official and his or her constituents, but in modern politics — just as it was in relatively old politics — some elected officials simply cannot be trusted. Those are not the caliber of leaders we want or need, but sometimes that’s what we get.
Gov. Newsom’s proposed legislation, as it currently is written, would make communications between the Wildfire Safety Advisory Board and the state Public Utilities Commission privileged, and therefore kept from public view. The wildfire board’s meetings would otherwise be subject to state open-meeting rules.
Here’s what a former president of the Public Utilities Commission, Loretta Lynch, has to say about the potential open-meetings law dodge: “It’s a historic reduction in transparency … pulling the Wizard of Oz’s curtain over a process that should be fully open to the public.”
Amen to that. There’s more:
Jamie Court, head of Consumer Watchdog, argues that open-meeting laws should apply to any deliberations about the public's safety from fires caused by utilities.
Perhaps the reason these officials feel so strongly about this issue is the miasma of distrust hanging over the culture of coziness between utility executives and the state regulators charged with keeping the utilities companies in line.
If the proposed wildfire safety group is allowed to close meetings to talk about utility companies’ roles in wildfires with the state’s Public Utilities Commission, the interests of utility ratepayers and homeowners will not be protected.
The proposed legislation calls for the governor to appoint five of the board members, while the top guns in the state Assembly and Senate would appoint one member each. That, in essence, makes the appointed board members de facto representatives of voting constituents. Any distinction between elected officials and their appointees is very slight.
Lawmakers must reach a consensus later this month, and we can’t imagine that the closed-session exclusion will be in the final draft. There is absolutely no way ratepayers, taxpayers and voters should be shut out of the process that should be designed to protect their interests. The only ones being protected by such a rule would be elected officials, their appointees and the Public Utilities Commission.