Opinion - SB 331, A Secrecy Bill Masquerading as a Transparency Bill, Deserves a Veto

By Peter Scheer | September 17, 2015 | I’m always suspicious of legislation that increases government secrecy. But what really gets...


By Peter Scheer | September 17, 2015 |

I’m always suspicious of legislation that increases government secrecy. But what really gets my attention is legislation that purports to make government more transparent—when in fact its true purpose and effect are just the opposite. SB 331, which is awaiting the Governor’s signature, is just such a sham: an official secrecy act masquerading as a transparency bill.

It deserves a veto.

SB 331 is the cynical response of public employee unions to transparency ordinances enacted by several California communities (including Costa Mesa and Fullerton). The ordinances are true transparency measures, not shams. They allow the public to get a look at government labor contracts before they become final. This is no small reform when you consider that more than 70 percent of local government budgets are for employee compensation, pensions and other benefits covered by these comprehensive labor agreements.

Public employee unions want to keep all bargaining and decision-making secret so they can deal exclusively with compliant council members and county supervisors, who are dependent on unions for campaign contributions and political support (and in many cases stand to benefit personally from sweetened contract provisions that they approve). Neither elected officials nor union officials want to have to explain their decisions to the voters who will have to pay for them.

SB 311 is payback for the communities that have adopted the (rather modest) transparency measures (referred to as COIN ordinances, for “Civic Openness in Negotiations”). SB 311 imposes on these communities—and only on these communities—Draconian new requirements for the letting of contracts to purchase goods and services. Although the requirements are ostensibly about transparency, they are so onerous, costly and time-consuming that no municipality could function with them.

And that’s the whole idea, of course. The bill isn’t designed to shed light on city contracting for goods and services—an area that, in contrast to collective bargaining, is already fairly transparent in any case. No, SB 311 is meant: 1) to force local governments that have enacted transparency measures to repeal them; and 2) to deter other communities from enacting them. To make the cynicism complete, the bill is named the “Civic Reporting Openness in Negotiations Efficiency Act.”

SB 311 is sitting in the tall stack of bills, approved by both the Senate and Assembly, on the desk of the Governor, awaiting final executive action. Jerry Brown must resist the pressure of a favored and powerful interest group and veto SB 311.

Peter Scheer is executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of FAC’s Board of Directors.

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