Copyright 2005, Marin Independent Journal
Profile of CFAC: Opening the state’s books
(Marin Independent Journal 1/31/05) — When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger opened his calendar for the world to see late last year, it was at the behest of a little-known nonprofit organization now headquartered in Marin.
The 16-year-old California First Amendment Coalition, which moved to San Rafael from Sacramento in July, provides advocacy for public access to government, from local town councils to the highest offices.
The move came at a time when the coalition hired a new executive director, Peter Scheer, 53, who lives in San Rafael’s Gerstle Park area and works with an assistant in a small office at Fourth and Irwin streets.
CFAC uses educational programs, publications, legal services, advocacy, lobbying and litigation to gain public access to the political process.
The coalition had been working for years to get Proposition 59, a ballot measure it authored and promoted, passed. The measure, approved by 83 percent of voters in the November election, amends the state constitution to protect the public’s right to access government meetings and records.
Because Schwarzenegger endorsed the proposal, the coalition invited him to be the first California governor to make his calendar public since the state Supreme Court ruled in 1991 that government officials did not have to divulge that information. He obliged a short time after the election.
“This was an invitation to the governor to reverse the policy of his predecessors,” Scheer said. “He did, and that was a wonderful development.
“This was dramatic, and it had an immediate effect. It encourages journalists around the state to ask for calendars from mayors, heads of agencies and other types of records that people had been denied under the Supreme Court ruling.”
Scheer said the information is useful because it shows, for example, whether an official is meeting with corporate executives, union leaders or public interest groups – a sector that was lightly represented on Schwarzenegger’s calendar.
Schwarzenegger deleted some calendar entries, something Scheer does not think is totally acceptable.
“They withheld records that could create security risks,” Scheer said. “That doesn’t bother me, but he also seemed to have held back meetings with political advisers.”
Scheer said meetings that were marked private could have included discussions of government policies and actions that the public is not aware of.
“That gives me some pause,” Scheer said. “We might have to do something.”
Since the coalition was founded in 1988, the board of directors has included representatives of the California Newspaper Publishers’ Association, the University of California, the State Bar Association, the California League of Women Voters, the California State University system, and individuals and community activists.
Rowland Rebele, a board member for eight years and former weekly newspaper-chain owner, said it is important for the public to be aware that government withholds information that voters need to know.
“An informed electorate is better than one that is misinformed,” said Rebele, who lives in Aptos, in Santa Cruz County. “We need to publicize how important information is and how you can get it.”
Rebele said the goal of the coalition is to educate journalists, organizations, minority group members and others about information to which they are entitled.
The success of Proposition 59 is an indication that the organization can succeed, Rebele said.
“I hope the governor will set an example for other government agencies,” Rebele said.
CFAC offers seminars, publications and a legal hotline available to journalists, government officials and anyone else with a question about open meetings and public access.
The free hotline is staffed by attorneys with DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary in San Francisco, through a financial arrangement with the coalition.
Lawyers offer information about the law but do not provide legal advice to callers. They handle about 400 inquiries a year, according to partner Joshua Koltun.
Another recent success for CFAC resulted from a lawsuit filed against the state’s massive public employee retirement system, CalPERS, demanding that it disclose how much venture capital firms are paid for management fees.
CalPERS provides retirement and health benefits to more than 1.4 million public employees and retirees and more than 2,500 employers.
CalPERS deals with about 300 venture capital firms in investing some of its retirement funds.
“We felt strongly that was information the public needed to know,” Scheer said.
The two parties negotiated a settlement in December under which CalPERS agreed to turn over most of the information CFAC had requested.
CalPERS had resisted the agreement because venture capital firms’ fees are negotiated in secret so that competitors don’t know how much others are being paid.
Now the information is available on the Web, Scheer said.
“We’re happy that by forcing the fees to be disclosed that would make the venture capital industry more competitive,” Scheer said. “This was a big strategic case as well because when you sue CalPERS, which is so big, other institutions out there have to adapt to CalPERS policies. It’s like a domino effect.”
Scheer, an attorney, publisher and entrepreneur, said CFAC will keep a close eye on public pension systems because taxpayers pay salaries and benefits.
If a fund under-performs, taxpayers have to step in and pay more to help government agencies meet their commitments to staff, Scheer said.
“Our general view is the more disclosure, the more the managers are being watched and the better they manage,” Scheer said.
CFAC will become more aggressive in its constructive influence over public policy development, Scheer said, by supporting legislation that would further its mission of open government and opposing laws that would deter from it.
Scheer also said there will be more litigation to defend open government rights.
Right now, he’s got his eye on casino-owning Indian tribes because they are becoming increasingly influential in state politics.
“It’s an enormous concentration of political power and wealth that the casinos have created,” Scheer said. “I’m troubled by the fact that tribal sovereignty is being used as a way to avoid political accountability.”
By Nancy Isles Nation