Friday, March 19, 2010

When "Security" Obfuscates Transparency

Here's what happens when governments are not transparent, even for routine stuff as travel destinations billed taxpayers by members of the California Assembly and Senate.

The excuse given by the Legislature's record-keeping officers were for "security" reasons even though the trips were already taken.

The Associated Press, which has been on a crusade lately with a multi-pronged Freedom Of Information campaign, said the California elected officers ran up a $2 million travel tab in the last two years and one-half years which is peanuts compared to the $20 billion budget deficit they face this July.

The North County Times, based in Escondido, ran the entire story Friday.

The report said $1.5 million was for travel from members home districts to the state capital in Sacramento, $400,000 for other in-state travel and $55,000 for out of state travel.

The news agency said the Legislature would not provide original documentation of lawmakers' air travel, meaning there is no way to independently determine where they flew or for what purpose. According to the report:

 "Providing past schedules for air travel related to legislative business that occurs even just once a year can reveal a pattern regarding future events that would continue to pose a potential threat to the security of each Assembly Member," Jon Waldie, chief executive of the Assembly Rules Committee, wrote in response to a letter seeking the information.
His counterpart, Senate Secretary Gregory Schmidt, provided a letter that contained nearly identical wording.
The California Legislature is not subject to the same public records law as most other state agencies. The California Legislative Open Records Act provides the Legislature with broad discretion about the types of information about its own activities it can keep from the public.

"Why would it be a security problem for travel that's already completed? That doesn't make any sense to me at all," said Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles and a former general counsel for the California Fair Political Practices Commission, the state's watchdog agency. "We're talking about taxpayers' money. It seems to me we should know more rather than less."

State Sen. Denise Ducheny, D-San Diego, defended keeping specific travel information out of the public realm. "I think the concern is legitimate. People don't want to establish patterns," she said. "Having your lives be as public as ours are is awkward enough."

The California Highway Patrol, which is responsible for the security of state lawmakers, said legislators receive threats but would not say how frequently.



In some respects, this is making a mountain out of a molehill. On the other hand, simply complying with the complete information after the fact eliminates the conspiracy theorists who believe all politicians are crooks. Who knows? Perhaps AP was looking for dirt as was learned in South Carolina in which Gov. Mark Sanford was caught abusing the airfare rules. If Sen. Ducheny thinks public life is "awkward enough," then don't seek public office. Meanwhile, with an assassin lurking behind every corner and a conspiracy junkie ready to spring, little wonder the quality of our politicians are far from the best and the brightest.

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