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Three Keys to Ensure More Transparent City Governments
Source: Los Angeles Daily News http://www.dailynews.com/opinions/ci_15707155
Source Date: Sunday, August 08, 2010
Focus: Citizen Engagement
Country: United States
Created: Aug 11, 2010

The League of California Cities was as outraged as the rest of the state to learn of the abuses by some elected and appointed officials in the city of Bell.

As an organization that represents California's 480 cities, we know that Bell is an outlier, an outrageous example of greed and closed door government that is the antithesis of how the vast majority of California cities operate.

Unlike the distant Congress or an unresponsive state government, city halls are the main place where people get to see and engage themselves in their government. We are the level of government closest to the people, the most transparent, and - if history is a guide - we are the government that can be most easily held accountable when elected officials are unresponsive or reckless.

But despite our belief that Bell is an extreme and isolated incident, what's happened there serves as a wake-up call to citizens, government officials, the media and other watchdogs of the taxpayer dollar.

Something went terribly wrong. The officials in Bell were able to enrich themselves because they were operating in the dark. While it is already law that compensation paid to all government employees must be made public, in Bell's case, that data was not easily accessible.

The league is taking the lead in developing reforms that will ensure public access to compensation data of all government employees is easily accessible. Data about salaries, pensions and other compensation should be easily found for all government employees, including state, university, school district, city, county and special district employees.

The league is drafting language now and working with legislative leaders and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to introduce and pass a bill this year.

The package we develop will be guided by three principles that have steered our organization for more than 100 years and will help prevent a situation like Bell from happening again:

1) Citizen engagement: A well-informed and active citizenry is the strongest form of accountability possible. Citizens, not elected officials, are in charge. They can express their approval, or disapproval, by voting their elected officials into or out of office.

2) Transparency: A transparent and open government is vital to empower citizens to make the right decisions. As the Bell situation taught us, information is power, and sunlight is a powerful antiseptic. With today's technology, salary, pension and other compensation information should be made readily available to citizens on government websites and other mediums.

3) Local control: Government closer to the people is more accountable to the people. As we look to enact reforms, we must recognize that Sacramento's role is to strengthen requirements for making information uniform and easily accessible. But it should stop there. We don't need more Sacramento bureaucracy or red tape. What works in Los Angeles, for example, may not work in Los Banos. Reform must start locally. Local citizens must be the final decision-makers, interfacing with their local elected officials.

Once the outrageous salaries of Bell's top officials were reported, the citizens of Bell took action and it was only a matter of days before resignations were tendered, and an embattled City Council was left with no choice but to reform itself.

In short, Bell residents were provided information, they became active, and they took control.

Transparency. Citizen activism. Local control.

The league is also in the process of conducting a salary survey of the city managers of all California cities. We plan to post those results on our Web site so that the media and the residents of every city can see what their elected and appointed representatives earn.

We believe these acts will go a long way to inform and engage local citizens, and to ensure maximum accountability out of the local governments that exist to serve the people.

Christopher McKenzie is the executive director of the League of California Cities.
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