City Life: End the secrecy; give us the truth

The financial shenanigans under investigation in the city of Bell have caused a scramble to climb aboard the "transparency" train. Government agencies are tripping over themselves to show their constituencies that they have nothing to hide.

Transparency is the new black.

Local agencies could take their cue from the Costa Mesa Sanitary District (CMSD), which is operating in such a transparent manner that its website even has a button labeled "Transparency."

There, you can discover that each board member receives a per diem of $221 per day of service, not to exceed six days per month. The highest paid board member for the fiscal year 2009-10 was Arlene Schafer at $15,691 in salary and $1,201 in benefits. The benefits are described as "…a small premium the CMSD pays for a board member's Social Security and Medicare costs."

Elsewhere, each of the individual School Accountability Report Cards on the Newport-Mesa Unified School District website shows the 2008-09 salary of recently indicted Supt. Jeffrey Hubbard ($237,073) as well as the average principal's salary for elementary, middle and high schools ($106,885, $118,152 and $121,935, respectively) and the ranges of teacher salaries. The website does not post compensation for the trustees, though Hubbard's profile on the site states that he favors "transparency and candor."

Apparently, that "transparency and candor" policy applies to everyone else, for there is language in the board's policies that requires a closed session to discuss the superintendent's annual evaluation.

Locally, the best transparency model can be found on the website for the city of Newport Beach, which meets the trend head-on by referencing the "news reports" about the city of Bell. At the site, you can see the specific revenue from cable franchising ($1,750,000), street closure permits ($40,000) and much more. You can also find compensation for City Council members and others on the website.

Overall, the local public agencies are doing a good job of being transparent. It's good, but it could be better.

Transparency is just another form of communication. Proactive communication reduces anxiety and questioning, a concept foreign to many public agencies that are used to operating in an arrogant and autonomous manner. That arrogance and autonomy is bi-partisan. According to a March 12 Los Angeles Times report, "The Democratic administration of Barack Obama, who denounced his predecessor, George W. Bush, as the most secretive in history, is now denying more Freedom of Information Act requests than the Republican did."

Public agencies may be wary of transparency because it increases accountability and forces a change in the status quo, something all of these boards, commissions, councils and panels work hard to preserve.

All local public business should be reported when it happens, including employee personnel matters. Costa Mesa taxpayers have a right to know why Police Chief Chris Shawkey and Capt. Ron Smith were placed on administrative leave last month. Smith's recent retirement announcement doesn't change that. And there is no reason why the school board should have a closed door meeting to discuss what to do about Hubbard — that should have been a public hearing with public comments permitted. After all, Hubbard is the taxpayer's employee, not the board's.

That employer-employee connection is the key to understanding how things must change. It's simple, really: If you take public money, your boss is not the person with the fancy title and the big salary — your boss is the taxpayer. And as your boss, the taxpayer is entitled to know everything about every budget, every salary, every payment, every union contract negotiation and every employee matter. If employees don't like that rule, they are free to find jobs in the private sector and work for another boss. If a union doesn't like it, that's too bad. And if there is a law against this, we need to change the law.

The tail has been wagging the dog for too long. Locals should not be kept in the dark about the performances or problems with Shawkey, Smith, Hubbard or any other person being paid with our money. Taxpayers are working harder than ever to make the money that public agencies spend. They want and deserve an end to the closed door meetings, the secrecy and the arrogance.

We can handle the truth.

STEVE SMITH is a Costa Mesa resident and a freelance writer. Send story ideas to smi161@aol.com.

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