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California officialdom weighing bills to expand government secrecy

Dec 03, 2023Dec 03, 2023

In summary

Sunshine is giving way to darkness as California’s politicians and bureaucrats try to make it more difficult for the public and the media to find out what they are doing.

Journalists from San Joaquin Valley news site GV Wire posed several of what they considered to be routine factual questions to the state Department of Public Health last week about a mysterious laboratory discovered in the small town of Reedley.

The laboratory, in an abandoned warehouse, contained mice, biological fluids and samples of dreaded diseases including HIV, malaria and COVID-19. Federal and state investigators are delving into the situation, which surfaced when a city building code inspector noticed a hose snaking out of a wall in the warehouse.

The journalists wanted to know how the department oversees laboratories, how often they are inspected and how illegal labs get discovered. But they initially got nowhere, telling the journalists to search their website to find answers. Department officials refused an interview request, and only after being pressed did they answer basic operational questions.

“Administration of @GavinNewsom has zero commitment to transparency,” columnist and news director Bill McEwen tweeted in frustration.

It was an example of what reporters and others have increasingly experienced in recent years as they attempt to decipher what politicians and bureaucrats are doing. It’s not hyperbole to say that a wall of secrecy has been erected around the state Capitol and the surrounding complex of buildings housing state agencies.

It was beginning to happen before COVID-19 struck the state in 2020 but it worsened during the pandemic as Gov. Gavin Newsom wielded emergency powers that suspended many of the “sunshine laws” governing open meetings, open records and other forms of access.

Newsom and other officials became used to operating out of public view and even after the pandemic eased, they continued the same practices.

The post-pandemic syndrome manifests itself not only in politicians and other officials seeking to avoid the give-and-take of direct questioning by reporters, as McEwen learned, but in the proliferation of meetings that are accessible only via internet.

California’s First Amendment Coalition, which attempts to preserve access to governmental records and meetings, may be fighting an uphill battle as the Legislature moves several measures that would reinforce closed door government, to wit:

Ginny LaRoe, advocacy director of the First Amendment Coalition, captured the essence of these measures in her comment on SB 544: “SB 544 rewrites the Bagley-Keene Open Meetings Act to allow officials serving on any state body – think CPUC, POST, State Bar and many more – to never again show up in person to a physical meeting location. This is government by telephone.”

The three bills have garnered a string of critical newspaper editorials – reflecting the fact that journalists are particularly affected by creeping official secrecy – but they nevertheless continue to advance.

In California, sunshine is giving way to darkness.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this commentary misattributed the inquiries to the state Department of Public Health and misstated the agency’s response.

Accelerated by the COVID pandemic, a shift by state officials toward emails and written statements is making it more difficult for journalists to be watchdogs for Californians.

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Mary, Walnut

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times... More by Dan Walters

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