The sexual harassment scandal that’s enveloped the Capitol exposes an unsavory aspect of the building’s culture that had been hidden for decades.
It’s also exposed another, equally unseemly trait – the Legislature’s routine exemption of itself from laws it imposes on everyone else.
Although, for instance, legislative leaders agreed that complaints about harassment should be investigated rather than be swept under the rug, the results of those investigations have been released only partially and inconsistently.
The Legislature can decide what to release because it is exempt from the California Public Records Act and is governed, instead, by the much-weaker Legislative Open Records Act.
For decades, the Legislature operated in almost total secrecy, but in the 1970s, a series of articles in the now-vanished Sacramento Union newspaper by yours truly and K.W. Lee, exposed many of the Legislature’s secret expenditures. In response, the Legislature grudgingly adopted an “open records act” for itself, but it’s a pale imitation of the one other public agencies must follow.
Last week, the Capitol Correspondents Association sent a letter to legislative leaders citing their inconsistent record of releasing harassment investigation results and erratic responses to requests under the Legislative Open Records Act. The organization asked that the reports be posted on the Internet.
It’s by no means the only example of how the Legislature operates by its own rules, rather than those it imposes on others.
The Brown Act dictates what local governments can and cannot decide in private, basically limiting closed meetings to personnel matters and pending lawsuits. A similar law governs most state agencies.
The Legislature, however, routinely conducts closed meetings, called “caucuses” to work out how they will handle issues in their public sessions – a practice that would send city council members and county supervisors to jail.
More than four decades ago, the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown decreed that public employees have the right to have unions bargain salaries and other working conditions. It also passed a similar law for farm workers, because they were exempt from the National Labor Relations Act.
However, the Legislature exempted its own employees from unionization and collective bargaining. They are also exempt from civil service rules, can be hired and fired at will, and lack the workplace protection laws that cover those in other private and public employment – which is why harassment could be covered up so easily.
State and local agencies must obey laws governing how they award contracts for public works construction and other services – including some that virtually allow only unionized companies to bid for work. The Legislature, however, can spend anyway it wishes.
Last week, Controller Betty Yee issued a report alleging that the City of Compton “has a general fund deficit caused in large part by reckless overspending, pervasive internal control deficiencies, and a lack of city council oversight.”
It illustrated that local governments and state agencies face many forms of financial oversight, not only from the controller’s office, but the Legislature’s own budget analyst, the state auditor and auditors at the state Department of Finance.
Who’s exempt from outside financial scrutiny? The Legislature, of course.
However, maybe the harassment scandal will begin to crack the Legislature’s bad habit.
Last week, Sen. Holly Mitchell, a Los Angeles Democrat, introduced legislation requiring virtually all public and private employees to undergo sexual harassment avoidance training every two years. Her office says the law would apply to the Legislature as well, thus codifying a similar legislative practice of requiring such training.
It’s a start.