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Auditing Our Public Agencies is Hard in Spite of Sunshine Laws

Friday, 21 February 2014 11:18 By Libi Uremovic, SpeakOut | Report
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The California Public Records Act made national headlines in 1968 because it clearly established the people's right to access to all government information and documentation. In 2004, voters approved Proposition 59 adding an Amendment to the California State Constitution. Article I Section 3(b)(1) states:

"The People have the right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people's business, and, therefore, the meetings of public bodies and the writings of public officials andagencies shall be open to public scrutiny."

The California Public Records Act was established 45 years ago, yet citizens still are denied access to public documents from local government agencies. California Government Code 6250 states:

"..Access to information concerning the conduct of the people's business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state."

In a democracy, it is the duty of the people to monitor and control their government. It is a "necessary right" for the people to take a hands-on approach to ensure taxpayers' dollars are spent wisely and in accordance with the provisions of the law.

There is very little allowance for withholding information from the public. Most of those provisions are to protect an individual's privacy. A government worker's personal health information is protected, but not the provisions of the health care plan itself. Also protected from the CPRA is the identity of victims, adoptees, etc.

Information can be withheld if it is deemed of "national security." Notes and information regarding ongoing investigations can be withheld from the public, but not the facts of the case. "Can" is the optimum word regarding public records. The law does not say the government agencies "must" withhold these documents, only that the provisions are allowed.

Union Bank is the Bond Trustee to $2 Billion in California Local Agency Bonds. Most of the bonds were issued without voter approval. Union Bank refuses to release the General Ledgers showing the financial transactions made with the taxpayers' money. Union Bank has denied the records request, stating they are not a government agency and exempt from providing public records by citing California Govt. Code 6254(b)(1):

"Applications filed with any state agency responsible for the regulation or supervision of the issuance of securities or of financial institutions, including, but not limited to, banks, savings and loan associations, industrial loan companies, credit unions, and insurance companies."

I did not request an "application," but thank you Union Bank for verifying that as Bond Trustee; Union Bank is in effect an Agency of the State and all documentation regarding the taxpayers' money is subject to the same public scrutiny. Union Bank also uses the excuse that the local agency bond accounts are "private." Union Bank's Corporate Office is located in San Francisco, not the Cayman Islands or Switzerland.

Coronado School District is refusing to comply with public records request to access their General Fund Bank Statements. There are no exemptions under the law to prevent the publicfrom reviewing the Bank Statements of a government agency. The School District first stated that "bank statements don't exist." I explained to the School District that it is State and Federal Law that "bank statements do exist" and the statements are especially important in the State of California because all taxpayer money is transmitted electronically. The Bank Statements will show exactly how much money the school district receives from the county, state, and federal government.

The School District then attempted the excuse: "because we don't review the bank statements, no one else can review the bank statements either." Records are public regardless of the use, misuse, or neglect of the agency. Bank Statements are public records because they are the bank's accounting of the people's money.

The Coronado School District has assured me that hiding the bank statements is "policy" throughout the State of California, and it seems to be true. The Burlingame School District also withheld the general fund bank statements from a public records request. I contacted the State Board of Education and they assured me that hiding the bank statements is not a policy dictated by the State.

The City of Coronado refuses to disclose the amount of Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) collected from each hotel using the "trade secrets" clause of the CPRA. A "trade secret" is the ingredients of "Coca Cola," not the amount of tax the government collects from the sale.

When local government agencies refuse to release public records, the first line of defense for the citizen is to contact their local Elected Representatives, but in today's political environment very few Representatives of the People have the will or the power to represent the People.

California Government Code 6258 provides a remedy through the courts if a government agency refuses to release public records. This is costly to the taxpayer and wastes the courts' time. It should not take a judge's order for a government agency to release records they know or should have known are a matter of public knowledge.

Most lawsuits throughout California are private citizens attempting to access public records, but sometimes it is government agency against government agency. The City of San Mateo has filed a Writ of Mandate to compel the California Public Utilities Commission to release documentation regarding the explosion that killed eight people in 2008. It appears that thePublic Utilities Commission is attempting to circumvent the CPRA to protect PG&E from liability.

Elected and appointed officials are paid to serve and protect the people. A government employee or agency working to the best of their ability has no reason to withhold documents regarding the people's business. In the State of California, the people are supposed to have access to all accounts related to receipt and disbursement of taxpayer money.

Read about the ongoing California agency audits and lawsuits to compel the release of public records at: http://www.libionline.net/index.html

This article is a Truthout original.

Libi Uremovic

Libi Uremovic is a citizen who started auditing California Local Agencies last year to stop the corruption.
 


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