Officials from San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed to U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner have thrown open their daily calendars, allowing insight into whom they choose to meet and how they fill their days doing the taxpayers' business.
But in California's state capital, even lawmakers willing to divulge their appointment schedules are barred from doing so -- a remarkable thwarting of the public's right to know, according to open-government experts across the country.
As previously reported, in late April, the rules committees governing the Assembly and Senate denied a request by the Bay Area News Group, the Associated Press and the First Amendment Coalition to reveal the appointment calendars of lawmakers and their key staffers. Citing the Legislative Open Records Act, the denial covered all lawmakers, including those who told reporters they were perfectly willing to reveal their meetings.
Since the denial, the Bay Area News Group has surveyed government watchdog groups, and gathered numerous examples at the local, state and federal level of elected officials who release their daily schedules. While it is easy to find such examples, it appears most often to be a matter of individual choice, because few agencies require disclosure. But public agencies that prohibit disclosure, as the California Legislature does, are virtually unheard of.
"This situation appears highly unusual," said Mary Boyle, spokeswoman for the national headquarters of Common Cause. "When you have legislators who are volunteering to release stuff and you have a rules committee saying no you cannot -- that just smacks of ridiculousness."
This newspaper issued calendar requests in the aftermath of a multiyear investigation that documented lobbyists' extensive influence in crafting new state laws. An analysis of thousands of bills introduced over three legislative sessions found close to half had outside "sponsors." Those special-interest sponsors used lobbyists to write and shepherd bills to the governor's desk with exceptional success.
Reed spokeswoman Michelle McGurk, whose boss has championed many forms of public disclosure, said the newspaper's findings underscore why state officials should release their calendars. "With the Legislature, it's very important since you do have such a high number of sponsored bills and you're having fundraising going on all the time -- often by the same entities that are sponsoring the legislation," McGurk said. "It's important for the public to know who their elected officials are meeting with and what kind of impact that has."
Yet who fills lawmakers' ears in Sacramento remains a closely guarded secret. In an April 28 letter signed by the Secretary of the Senate and Chief Administrative Officer of the Assembly -- and endorsed by elected leaders of both houses -- the Legislature determined that "concerns regarding privacy, security and legislative privilege" trump the public's right to know.
Senate Secretary Gregory Schmidt did not return repeated calls last week to further explain why even willing lawmakers were barred from releasing their calendars.
Many legislators support the secrecy, including Democratic Assemblywoman Nora Campos, who released her calendar as a San Jose city councilwoman but now says it would jeopardize her security and the privacy rights of those she meets with. But the committees also prohibited access to the calendars of three lawmakers who had previously told reporters they had no problem releasing their calendars. Those members are Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, and Assembly members Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, and Susan Bonilla, D-Concord.
Freshman lawmakers Gordon and Bonilla have resigned themselves to following the Assembly rules. But Yee has protested the prohibition to Senate leaders. "Unfortunately, the Senate Rules Committee is the custodian of all Senate records including senators' schedules," his spokesman Adam Keigwin said. "Senator Yee has attempted to release his schedule but has been barred from doing so by the Rules Committee."
Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, echoed other freedom-of-information experts in describing the prohibition as rare. "I've seen rules committees that make rules and make restrictions as to how a body acts as a group," she said. "I've not seen rules committees impose rules on how individual legislators can communicate with their constituents."
Indeed, across the country high-profile figures have opted for openness -- from the nation's chief consumer protection advocate, Elizabeth Warren, to a dozen members of Congress from California, New York, Florida, Montana, Ohio, Illinois and Alaska. Their websites provide details of meetings with representatives of for-profit colleges, cattlemen's associations, abortion rights groups and the Korean parliament. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a former speaker of the state assembly, emails his schedule to a listserve each day.
And in Santa Clara County, supervisors will consider a policy by this fall that will require them to reveal their calendars, said board President Dave Cortese, who is pushing a new "sunshine" ordinance for top county officials, who oversee a $4 billion operation.
Given the trend toward transparency, San Jose officials find it curious that state leaders remain resistant. Since 2007, the mayor, council members and four top city officials have been required to post calendars to the city's website each week.
Councilman Pete Constant prides himself on being the first to comply. Recent entries on his calendar include a meeting with the county Republican Party, a half-hour talk with a lobbyist for the payday lending industry, and a 12-minute, 5.59-mile ride to an assistant sheriff's retirement party. In the entry, he even listed the attire ("casual to business casual"), the cost ($45), and what he did from 6 to 11 p.m. -- "dinner, dancing and reminiscing."
"My residents are my bosses, they're paying me to do my job," Constant said. "It's important that the residents make me account for my time, and I do it quite frankly out of respect for the people I work for."
While San Jose is one of the more diligent local governments, San Francisco is a pioneer in requiring public officials to make their calendars available "to any requester" within three business days. A 1999 voter initiative calls for the mayor, city attorney, and every department head to provide calendars, including "a general statement of issues discussed."
Practice often bumps against intent, however. In many postings, Mayor Edwin Lee's calendar simply lists public appearances at ribbon-cuttings and elementary schools. Often, it just states: "Mayor Lee to conduct meetings in City Hall."
Oakland's mayor, Jean Quan, also has not lived up to full accountability.
Despite Quan's pledge to make her calendar available once elected, she has found that task cumbersome, according to spokeswoman Sue Piper. As of Friday, detailed postings were 11 weeks behind schedule.
"It isn't as easy as you think it is," Piper said, adding: "But the intent was to be transparent and accessible -- no backroom deals."
Contact Karen de Sá at 408-920-5781.