- Associated Press - Friday, May 26, 2017

May 25

The San Jose Mercury News on state government transparency:

When 36 people died in the nation’s deadliest fire since 2003, Oakland’s mayor promised full transparency about the infamous Ghost Ship inferno. Instead, city officials ran roughshod over the state Public Records Act, delaying release of documents for weeks until we threatened to sue.

When the Sacramento Bee sought records about former UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, the university stalled. And as the state Department of Water Resources spends $275 million to repair the Oroville Dam it has refused to release the recommendations of an independent board of consultants.

The list goes on, and on.

It’s time to put teeth in the state Public Records Act. That’s why the Assembly Appropriations Committee should keep alive a bill by Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, to strengthen the law.

Oh, the irony: On Friday we will learn whether Bonta’s bill, AB 1479, promoting government transparency has survived Sacramento’s secretive process for killing legislation.

In the Senate and Assembly, bills that involve expenditures are placed on “suspense” and then the Appropriations Committee of each house determines which bills will be allowed to proceed.

The theory is that the committee can review all the spending bills at once and ensure they’re not too costly. The reality is that the decisions are made behind closed doors, often for reasons that have nothing to do with cost, while sparing individual legislators any accountability for the outcome.

Bonta’s bill has minimal cost. It would allow a judge to impose a civil penalty of up to $5,000 against a government agency that egregiously violates the Public Records Act.

The penalty could be for withholding records that are clearly subject to public disclosure; unreasonably delaying release of records; assessing unreasonable or unauthorized fees; or failing to act in good faith.

While the ACLU, the state’s newspapers and First Amendment groups have lined up in support, cities and counties are whining about the cost. Of course, there would be no cost under Bonta’s bill if they would simply follow the law.

Instead, local governments continue to levy illegal charges for records, according to a committee analysis of Bonta’s bill. Some counties around the state still refuse to release public employee names and salaries - a decade after the state Supreme Court ruled such records must be disclosed.

And, last year, the San Diego Union-Tribune reviewed records requests submitted to 107 local agencies and found more than 25 percent missed the legal deadlines for responding to inquiries.

We wish this wasn’t needed. We wish local governments would follow the law. Instead, too many continue to thumb their nose at transparency. That must change.

___

May 24

San Francisco Chronicle on Trump’s budget:

The Trump budget plan fits the president well: brutal, illogical and unrealistic. The initial spending plan may not be the final word, but it should trouble anyone thinking about this country’s financial future.

The document is rightly drawing bipartisan fire for its harsh shredding of safety-net, cultural and scientific research programs ranging from food stamps to disease prevention. This shotgun demolition is built on phony belief that charities, private institutions and state and local government will pick up the slack.

Stranger even are the underlying economics. Along with the spending trims go tax cuts, which will benefit wealthy payers the most. According to the Trump team, this gift will super charge the business world, which will grow and - presto - produce more tax revenue. But this magical thinking hasn’t worked where it’s been tried.

Poured on top of this theory is a projection that the economy will grow at a 3 percent rate, a number well beyond the 1.9 percent figure posted by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

For all its doctrinaire boldness, the blueprint ducks the biggest challenges. The main drivers in federal spending are Social Security and Medicare, on which tens of millions of Americans rely. Reforms, cost controls, and future plans are all left out. The Trump team may be leaving room for future negotiations, but for now there’s a dearth of creative thinking and political courage in this spending blueprint.

The sweeping scope of the budget plan also takes on localities that offer varying forms of sanctuary protections for immigrants without legal status. Through a backdoor spending provision, cities such as San Francisco and others in the Bay Area with sanctuary ordinances, would be compelled to cooperate more fully with border agents in exchange for Homeland Security and Justice Department money.

The president’s budget plan is landing with a political thud. Republicans are backing away, suggesting the numbers are a starting point or framework for more dickering. Democrats are blunter, noting its punitive effects on the poor and the faulty underlying economics.

The White House has set its course on slimming yearly budget deficits, leading over time to the golden promise of balanced spending. That’s a praiseworthy notion. But this budget plan doesn’t offer evidence that such a rosy hope is achievable.

___

May 24

Marin Independent Journal on SMART train:

In 2008, voters in Marin and Sonoma counties approved Measure Q, agreeing to tax themselves to pay for building and running a commuter train and a bi-county bike path.

Taxpayers have paid their part of that bargain. But as the voter-launched Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit train prepares to start commute service next month, it has backpedaled on its on-the-ballot promise to voters to start “two-way passenger train service every 30 minutes during weekday rush hours traffic.”

With little public notice - even some SMART board members said they were taken by surprise - the board last week heard about a new proposed train schedule that included 90-minute gaps right in the midst of the morning and afternoon commutes.

For several months, SMART has posted on its website a timetable that showed its trains, rolling from Santa Rosa to San Rafael, making stops at 30-minute intervals.

After fielding complaints about the revised schedule, SMART quickly released another revision this week, this time hoping to respond to criticism that last week’s revision garnered.

At this late date, it is hard to believe SMART would even start with a schedule that would turn away potential riders.

Public transit should be affordable, dependable and convenient.

One way to make sure it is hitting all three is to work to connect with riders, those people who would depend on its service.

SMART’s leadership found a way to connect with potential riders, getting the predictable political blowback from the proposed schedule.

When the new schedule hit the SMART board’s agenda last week, there had been little public notice or review. Given the SMART board’s initial response, it appeared the agency’s leadership was ready to roll over any public process.

At least two of Marin’s board members, San Rafael Mayor Gary Phillips and Larkspur Councilman Dan Hillmer, questioned the change, especially the possible ramifications of the 90-minute service gap.

Phillips said the new schedule’s gaps provided commuters with a reason to stay in their cars, instead of taking the train.

At the meeting, there was no mention of the 2008 ballot language.

Schedule changes are to be expected as SMART gets rolling - and even after it has started service.

Golden Gate Transit’s schedules are hardly static. Changes are to be expected, often reflecting changes in ridership patterns.

But they are implemented after some level of public process.

Launching a new train service is a new challenge for SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian and SMART’s board of directors.

Schedule tweaking is to be expected. But making those changes in a way that leaves riders out of the decisions and that flies in the face of SMART’s promise to voters is not the best way to launch a public service.

The speed with which it responded to the predictable criticism was appropriate, but it still falls short of the promise to voters.

This should be a top priority for the SMART board.

___

May 23

San Diego Union-Tribune on Gov. Jerry Brown and the University of California:

Californians should be deeply disappointed with the University of California. While UC remains a bastion of outstanding academics and research, audits have shown its leaders to be hiding funds while implementing tuition hikes, interfering with outside investigations, failing to explain its finances and favoring admission of out-of-state students who pay higher tuition over qualified residents.

Yet despite this history, when UC President Janet Napolitano was called to testify before a joint legislative committee after the latest scathing audit, who sat next to Napolitano and sang her praises? Monica Lozano, the chair of UC’s Board of Regents. This is incomprehensible. It sends Napolitano the message that she doesn’t have to heed outside criticism or follow through on promises to carry out reforms.

Gov. Jerry Brown now says he will withhold $50 million in UC funds if Napolitano doesn’t implement state Auditor Elaine Howle’s latest recommendations. But Brown has a far more potent way to force change: by filling the four present vacancies and every future vacancy on the regents’ board with individuals determined to make UC management and finances far more transparent.

“UC has thrived because of the oversight and direction from the Board of Regents,” Lozano asserted earlier this month.

It’s time for better oversight and a new direction.

___

May 20

Ventura County Star on new gas tax:

Although we did not take a position on the gas tax increase and transportation improvement plan approved last month by the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown, we find the continuing opposition interesting. Oil companies can raise gas prices by 12 cents a gallon for no apparent reason and few people complain, but when the state does it - for a good cause, no less - you’d think the world was ending.

We don’t like the state’s past diversions of gas tax funds to non-transportation purposes, but we’re excited about the road improvements this new funding should bring. We also believe that if higher gas prices motivate folks to drive less, that will be a big plus for our environment and our health.

May, in fact, is National Bike Month and a good time to encourage Ventura County residents to get out of their cars, walk or bike to work or errands, and enjoy the exercise and fresh air. It’s also a time to remind motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians to watch out for each other and be safe on our roads.

The Southern California Association of Governments launched an advertising campaign this month to that effect. Statistics show Southern California is one of the nation’s most dangerous regions for bicyclists and pedestrians. Nearly 470 were killed and more than 13,600 injured here in 2014, according to the most recent statistics available. That includes 12 pedestrians and three bicyclists killed in Ventura County that year.

Just last month, a Ventura mother of two was killed by a hit-and-run driver while walking to her job at McDonald’s. Estela Tejeda-Camacho was hit April 25 near John F. Johnston Drive at the County Government Center. Ventura police continue to search for the driver of a gold 2002 Acura MDX, and we hope they are doing everything they can to bring this criminal to justice.

The Road Repair and Accountability Act passed last month will raise about $5 billion a year, or $52 billion over a decade. It earmarks $100 million a year for Active Transportation Program grants, which are designed to increase the number of bicycle and pedestrian trips and make them safer. The state in March awarded grants for bike lane, sidewalk and other such improvements around Montalvo School and the Highway 101/Ash Street pedestrian overcrossing in Ventura, and along Etting Road in Oxnard.

Another big chunk of the new state funding will go to counties and cities for critical road repairs and improvements, and local officials estimate Ventura County and its 10 cities will receive at least $380 million over the next decade. Eligible projects include so-called “complete streets” that are safer for walkers and bikers.

We believe that more and wider bike lanes, sidewalks, protective barriers and other safety features for pedestrians and bicyclists are indeed critical needs, and we hope our local officials agree when the new tax dollars start arriving.


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