Thousands of Taxpayer Dollars Spent to Keep the Public in the Dark about Secret Meetings to Kill PACE
Bakersfield-area politicians last year refused to address strong evidence of backroom dealings with powerful realtor lobbyists to kill homeowner access to the popular home improvement financing program known as Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE). In response, we sued to enforce the public’s right to know if state public meetings law had been violated.
Since then, both the City of Bakersfield and Kern County have refused to give up text messages of elected officials’ communications with these lobbyists, despite a California Supreme Court ruling that says they must. And subpoenaed records from one lobbyist reveal numerous meetings with elected officials otherwise hidden from the public.
Now, the City is trying to use a legal maneuver to partially block the inquiry, asserting the Checks and Balances Project (C&BP), a national watchdog, is not allowed to try to enforce Californians’ right to know.
Bakersfield’s outside attorneys, meanwhile, are racking up thousands of dollars in invoices paid by taxpayers instead of having clerks procure the records.
First Amendment Coalition and Californians Aware Lawsuit
Last year, the First Amendment Coalition and Californians Aware also started asking questions of the City of Bakersfield. In Dec. 2017, they filed a joint lawsuit against the City over alleged violations of open-meetings laws and withholding records allowed under the California Public Records Act.
“Our coalition works on freedom of information issues throughout California and beyond,” said David Snyder, executive director, First Amendment Coalition. “Elected officials in Bakersfield and Kern County are becoming poster kids for secrecy and evading simple records requests.”
Kern County Supervisors Fail to Provide Records
A few blocks away from City Hall are Kern County’s offices, where officials failed to provide requested public records of multiple PACE-related meetings between Kern County Supervisors and realtor lobbyists. According to records from lobbyist Jimmy Yee obtained by C&BP, Kern County appears to have withheld information from the public that would have revealed these meetings. During this time, we found no similar meetings with pro-PACE advocates in the records we were provided.
District Attorney’s Investigation of Kern
Separately, Kern County District Attorney Lisa Green confirmed on Feb. 8, 2018, that her office launched a new investigation into “all allegations” involving the Kern County Board of Supervisors, including allegations of bribery from a Bakersfield business owner.
Our view is that if there is nothing in elected officials’ texts messages to be concerned about, it would be simpler and more cost effective for the City and County to allay concerns and release them. Or provide sworn affidavits by each elected official, as the Supreme Court ruling provided, that they had searched their phones for texts with realtor lobbyists related to our case.
Why has the City of Bakersfield and Kern County worked so hard to keep them hidden? Perhaps citizens will find out soon.
Scott Peterson is executive director of Checks and Balances Project, an investigative blog that seeks to hold government officials, lobbyists and corporate management accountable to the public. Funding for C&BP comes from sustainable economy philanthropies and donors.