Two measures making their way through different political processes in California seek to increase transparency. One is a ballot initiative; the other is a bill. Each one’s supporters say it would cut down on backroom deals. But transparency can be a double-edged sword.
The California Coastal Commission dismissed its executive director last month, and coastal activists blame the behind-the-scene influence of developers. State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson is authoring a bill in response. It would require that interest groups only approach commissioners in public hearings.
"The public is entitled to know what decisions are being made and why they’re being made, and to have input in those decisions," says Jackson.
It’s a classic transparency bill that conforms to that axiom of good government groups: “Sunshine is the best disinfectant”—that’s not good medical advice, by the way. Stanford political science professor Bruce Cain says it’s not always good policy, either.
"There are tradeoffs between openness and good effective government," says Cain.
He says the brighter the spotlight, the harder it is for government officials to reach consensus.
"It can put a premium on never compromising and never backing down," says Cain. "That you’re true to your principles, and yet our political system requires that people compromise."
So he dislikes the Jackson bill, but he has no problem with another transparency measure—an initiative by Republican donor Charles Munger that will likely appear on the November ballot. It would require each bill be publicly reviewable for 72 hours before lawmakers take a final vote.
Jackson says that could impede delicate compromises to pass important legislation. They’re often struck right before a deadline. And she says most bills are already vetted by the public.
"There’s input from any interested party. You know how someone’s voting, usually there’s debate," says Jackson.
She says the Coastal Commission lacks the same level of transparency. Her proposal will likely receive its first public hearing this spring.
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