California Lawmaker Pushes for Special District Transparency

Under a proposal from Marin Senator Mike McGuire, the state’s more than 2,000 independent special districts would be required to maintain a portal to publish spending data.

by Richard Halstead, The Marin Independent Journal / April 9, 2018
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(TNS) — Marin, Calif.’s state senator has cleared a key hurdle on legislation to increase online transparency at the state's more than 2,000 independent special districts.

Sen. Mike McGuire, who represents northern coastal counties in District 2, saw his Senate Bill 929 approved 6-0 by the Senate Committee on Governance and Finance on Wednesday. The bill goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee next.

“There are millions of Californians who receive a vital service from a special district, yet they have no idea how their hard earned tax dollars are being spent because financial reports aren’t online,” McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said in a released statement. “They don’t know what the district’s board is doing because the agenda isn’t posted online or how to contact their district on a call for service.”

In addition to requiring independent special districts to maintain a website, the bill would require that each website include meeting agendas, clear information on the district’s budget and expenditures, compensation reports, information on how to contact representatives of the district and more.

Last year, the Little Hoover Commission, which serves as the state’s independent oversight agency, released a report recommending that the Legislature pass just such a law.

The state’s special districts operate a variety of essential local services including fire protection, transit, parks, utilities and many others. The special districts come in two forms: independent and dependent.

Dependent special districts are overseen by an existing legislative body, such as a board of supervisors or a city council. Independent special districts have their own board of directors who are either elected or appointed by a local jurisdiction to fixed terms.

McGuire’s bill would only apply to independent districts. There are 63 special districts in Marin, but at least a third of these are dependent districts.

The Marin County Civil Grand Jury has twice weighed in on the need for special districts to have well-designed websites. The grand jury, however, has not drawn a distinction between dependent and independent districts. In fact, in a March 2016 report that evaluated web transparency, the grand jury included Marin’s 20 school districts and 34 joint powers authorities along with special districts.

In that report, the grand jury found that 27 Marin local agencies lacked public websites and that 65 of the existing 99 websites needed to be improved.

The Brown Act requires all local agencies to post the agenda for any regular meeting 72 hours in advance in a location accessible to the public. And a state law was passed in 2011 requiring local agencies that have a website to post meeting agendas on the website. However, there is no requirement that special districts maintain a website.

In its March 2016 report, the Marin civil grand jury criticized the county for not maintaining separate websites for all 28 special districts and four joint powers authorities that it oversees.

“The county just does not agree that is the most straightforward way of communicating to the public what would often be duplicative information,” said Dan Eilerman, assistant county administrator.

Seventeen of the special districts Marin County oversees are community service areas, or CSAs. In its response to the grand jury, the county said CSAs are better described as financing mechanisms than municipal agencies.

California law allows residents in unincorporated areas to form CSAs so they can tax themselves to provide a service such as including water, garbage collection, wastewater management, security and fire protection.

The law provides a way for residents living in the unincorporated area to get a higher level of service than they might otherwise. For example, in November 2016 Kent Woodlands residents in Community Service Area #17 approved an annual $360 per living unit special tax to pay for additional patrol services by the county sheriff’s department.

Eilerman said Marin County did respond to the grand jury’s concerns.

“As a result of the grand jury investigation, our Department of Finance created a comprehensive listing website that includes a summary of all of our special districts and a link to a budget document which includes a lot more information,” Eilerman said.

No estimate has been prepared yet on the cost of implementing McGuire’s bill should it be enacted into law. The bill would exempt districts if their governing body adopts a resolution declaring that complying with the law would be a hardship. Acceptable hardships would include a lack of funding, insufficient staffing or inadequate access to broadband communications. Even though the law would impose new duties on local agencies, the state would not reimburse local governments’ compliance costs.

Ron Brown, who worked on the Marin civil grand jury’s 2017 update on web transparency in Marin, said, “I think anything that encourages public agencies to be more transparent is a good thing.”

©2018 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.