December 19, 2006 > Full Disclosure: final thoughts
Full Disclosure: final thoughts
by Steve Warga
So-called "investigative" reporting is not TCV's stock in trade, generally speaking. But when we come across something in the public domain that seems irregular, something that doesn't make sense, we will investigate; and we will report our findings if we think readers may want to know.
This is exactly what happened in April when a Sunol resident informed us of the Alameda County Waste Management Authority's proposed composting facility in the Sunol Valley. After looking into the matter, we concluded this project might be another example of bureaucrats run amok. We then told the entire story to our readers in a series of articles over the course of several months. As it turned out, our conclusions were validated when county supervisors put an end to the poorly-conceived project.
A more recent example of our occasional investigative forays began in October, when a candidate for city council visited our offices to present information that raised questions about one of the other candidates in the race. In our research of what appeared to be an unlicensed business registered at the candidate's home, we reviewed the Statement of Economic Interests forms required of all elected officials and many staff members in influential positions in government.
That investigation evolved into our series titled, Full Disclosure. While working through the filings of city councilmembers and candidates in the greater Tri-City area, we came across some oddities in the rules and regulations of the state Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) itself. Lacking the resources to fund a team of experts, we had to research each and every anomaly we uncovered; learning on the job. Had our intent been just to muddy the reputations of those whose filings appeared irregular, we would have simply listed those irregularities and left our readers and their politicians to sort truth from error. TCV does not practice that brand of journalism. So we researched first then reported our findings.
In the end, we've drawn two major conclusions from our voyage of discovery. The first is that all our local city councilmembers follow the letter of the law in their filings, to the best of their understanding. (We also noted in our series that nearly all local officials choose to follow the spirit of the law as well, by posting some information not required by regulations.)
Our second major conclusion is that FPPC rules, regulations and practices comprise a complex and remarkably inefficient oversight system. We found numerous exceptions to disclosure regulations; then we found exceptions to those exceptions. We learned that local "filing officers" are also "filing officials" for certain reporting categories. In the case of councilmembers, the filing officer-who has direct oversight responsibilities-is not the city clerk; it is the FPPC in Sacramento. This make no sense when you consider how a bureaucrat in Sacramento would "know or have reason to believe" a local official's filing is incomplete or false, as the law stipulates.
How can there be any consistent oversight in this unwieldy "system?" The short answer is, "There isn't any consistent oversight." It's up to local residents to dig through the filings and then question any anomalies, exactly as TCV has done over the past couple of months. This is another example of why citizens cannot rely upon government entities to perform as advertised. John Q. Citizen must educate himself and then perform his own due diligence reviews of local officials.
However, residents of the greater Tri-City area now have an additional resource at their disposal. TCV pledges to conduct regular reviews of disclosure filings of both candidates for office and holders of those offices. Should we find inconsistencies, we'll report them. This is part of the motto printed on our masthead every week: Accurate, Fair & Honest. And it is our commitment to our readers.