"Public commissions, boards, councils and other legislative bodies of local government agencies exist to and in the conduct of the people's business. The People do not yield their sovereignty to the bodies that serve them. The people insist on remaining informed to retain control over the legislative bodies they created."
-Preamble, Ralph M. Brown Act
Some 22 1/2 years ago, I got wind that the Bakersfield City Council was interviewing a candidate named Alan Tandy for the position of city manager. Council members along with then-City Attorney Larry Lunardini were meeting in closed session as they interviewed Tandy at what was then called the Bakersfield Convention Center, now known as the Rabobank Theatre and Convention Center.
Not knowing specifically in which room they were meeting, my cameraman and I were circling the area, lying in wait ready to pounce on the unsuspecting council members and find out if they had decided to hire Tandy.
We were the only media present. But apparently someone spotted us and tipped off the brave city leaders that a guy with a camera and another armed with a microphone and reporter's notebook were ready to attack.
"Let's all go out the back door because the media is out there," Lunardini reportedly told his clients when the meeting concluded.
And all city council members obeyed, sneaking out the back door. All but one. Ward 7 Councilman Mark Salvaggio came out the front door, head held high and didn't try to scurry away. Far from saying "no comment," Salvaggio obliged us with an interview and explained why the city had decided to hire Tandy.
Salvaggio's reward for letting the public know what the city council was doing behind closed doors? Some of his fellow city council members threatened to censure him. That effort went nowhere, and I seriously doubt a public censure would have muzzled Salvaggio anyhow.
Recently I asked him why he refused to sneak out the back door that day along with the others.
"I was disappointed that (Lunardini) said to go out the back door. I couldn't do that," said the semi-retired Salvaggio. "There's something about open government. It keeps things from festering."
Thing is, however, that government agencies, whether it be a city council, school board, law enforcement or county government, often takes prodding, time and persistence to get information about the people's business.
It's not uncommon for these agencies to push back in an attempt to keep the public from gathering whatever information one is seeking. Or an agency might find documents to contain embarrassing information, only to release a heavily redacted document, or claim such information is legally exempt from public view.
That's why the California Public Records Act, Freedom of Information Act and Ralph M. Brown Act are such valuable tools. CPRA (for state records) and FOIA (for federal ones) requires that public documents be readily available to the public. California's Brown Act requires that government agencies and boards meet in public and post agendas in advance.
It's better yet when the information sought yields results. The Kern High School District, for example, is revising its travel policy and taking steps to track spending of public tax dollars by employees who use a district credit card. It is also making public the names of district employees who use a district credit card for whatever purchase is made, and adding an extra layer of oversight to approve a purchase prior to payment.
But these changes only came about after one of my colleagues at 29 Eyewitness News, reporter Kyle Harvey, poked his nose into district spending and started asking a lot of questions.
Initially KHSD turned over documents but with all names redacted, which meant the public had no way of knowing who spent what amount at luxury hotels or made food purchases in the hundreds of dollars and who approved them.
In a written statement, the district cited government code for redacting the names. Pressed further, it said the names were redacted because the district had been given bad legal advice. Whatever. In the end, KHSD told Harvey it would release the names. The sweet irony is KHSD made the decision during National Sunshine Week, which was March 15-21.
That's the week to observe and celebrate transparency in government at all levels. Sadly, however, some jurisdictions are making it harder -- and more expensive -- to hold government officials accountable.
The Associated Press just released an excellent analysis of how the public's right to information is being undermined at all levels, from the federal government to town halls.
One can only hope government officials will stop trying to run out the back door, come forward and answer for their actions and comply with the letter and spirit of open government.
-- Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a reporter for KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own.