Perhaps nothing demonstrates the County of San Diego’s ongoing struggles with transparency issues more than a vote it took this week.
On Tuesday, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors put its stamp on 21 recommendations to improve its response to wildfires. Almost all of the recommendations dealt in some way with boosting transparency and communication.
The only problem: The report detailing all the recommendations, more than 100 pages long, came out just after 9 a.m. Tuesday. The board was already in the midst of its regularly scheduled meeting by then, and members approved the recommendations just two hours later.
That means the board weighed in on transparency and communication issues without any time for members of the public to so much as read the report being voted on – and there was barely anyone from the public there to begin with.
Officials said they released the report to everyone at the same time – the public, supervisors, media, etc. – and that it was not produced earlier simply because it had not been finished.
The vote itself was pretty innocuous – they were mostly just recommendations being OK’d. But the concept of voting on transparency matters in a not-totally-transparent way doesn’t do much to dissuade a growing belief that the county government is one of the most isolated public agencies in the region.
Transparency advocates also mobilized against the board this week for taking a step toward returning a controversial community grants program that had been slashed four years ago back to full funding with no testimony from the public and seemingly no one but county employees in attendance.
That sparked the ire of the American Civil Liberties Union, SEIU Local 221 and a handful of other groups that urged the county in a letter Wednesday that the “program should not be expanded without a thorough community-led review of the process for this program, starting with a serious evaluation of the Grand Jury findings in 2011, and including best practices in encouraging robust public participation.”
“We believe that many funds spent through the [Neighborhood Reinvestment Program] have benefited the community, but we oppose any efforts to expand the funding for this program until the process meets the standards that San Diego taxpayers expect and deserve,” the letter says.
County officials have been working for years on increasing transparency and outreach to residents.
“When I first came into office, our county government was dominated by bureaucrats who had a bunker mentality. Serving taxpayers came second to serving the bureaucracy,” County Supervisor Dianne Jacob wrote in an email.
“We’ve come a long way since then by taking a wide range of steps aimed at improving transparency, including streaming board meetings online, posting critical documents on our website and creating an annual budget that’s easier for the public to understand,” she wrote. “We will continue to look for ways to build on those improvements.”
But Donna Frye, president of Californians Aware, an open government advocacy group, said the county is “very far behind on very many issues” of transparency, especially compared with the city of San Diego.
Among the transparency issues Frye said need addressing are the county’s policy of purging emails after 60 days and increasing the amount of information that lobbyists have to disclose when they meet with county officials or staff.
But not everyone thinks a lack of public participation is a problem – in fact, Jacob told me it’s a sign that the board is doing its job.
“The reason why we don’t see a large volume of people testifying during our budget hearings is mainly due to the County’s strong fiscal health and triple-A credit rating, and the fact that we are not making painful cuts to critical services,” Jacob said.
But residents aren’t the only ones on the sidelines – even some of the budget watchdogs have taken a break from, well, watching the county budget process closely.
“I haven’t been following it closely enough to be able to comment,” Sean Karafin of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association said last week.
“I would say that there’s a certain level of trust that they’ve built over time … not to say that they’re perfect,” Karafin said. “We pretty much know what to expect from the county’s budget and they don’t throw a lot of surprises in there.”
Frye takes a more cynical view of why the budget process didn’t attract much public interest.
“I think a lot of people feel that nothing’s going to change … When they don’t feel that they’re going to have a lot of influence or affect a change or see that happen at a hearing, I think fewer people participate,” she said.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified Donna Frye’s position at Californians Aware. She is its president.