CALIFORNIA — Afterthree years of legislative back and forth, Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday signedSenate Bill 8, subjecting foundations, bookstores and other auxiliary organizationsthroughout California’s public university system to open records requests.
The Richard McKee Transparency Act of 2011 was authoredby state Sen. Leland Yee. Adam Keigwin, Yee’s chief of staff, said the billstarted as a way to clarify the role “quasi-public” auxiliary organizations hadunder open records laws.
Keigwin said the law clarifies that the public can obtaincorrespondence, emails, letters, financial statements and contracts fromfoundations and auxiliary organizations at the University of California,California State University and the state’s community college system.
The legislation does, however, allow foundation donors toremain anonymous unless they receive gifts from the school worth more than $2,500.Donors can also become public if they enter into a no-bid contract with theschool within five years of a donation or if they attempt to influencecurriculum or university operations.
The bill has its roots in 2009 legislation that passedoverwhelmingly, only to be vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Yee revised and resubmitted the bill the following yearaddressing concerns brought up by the governor, namely the privacy of anonymousdonors.The changes allowed anonymous donations unless donors received gifts from the schoolworth more than $500 for their contribution. Despite similar bipartisan supportin the senate, Schwarzenegger again rejected the bill.
With a new governor in place this year, SB 8 was anopportunity to try again.
“We took a little bit different approach this year bycreating essentially a mini public records act in the education code,” said JimEwert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association and asupporter of the bill.
Ewert said one of the main changes was increasing the acceptablevalue of gifts an anonymous donor may receive to $2,500.
“It was that final piece that protected identifiableinformation about donors that apparently won the day,” he said.
Ewert called the compromises “reasonable” and said withthe bill in place, “there’s going to be an attempt to pull back a lot ofcurtains.”
“Foundations only comprise about a third of the totalnumber of auxiliaries on CSU campuses,” Ewert said, adding “bookstores,agreements between student body organizations, vendors, parking concerns, arenadevelopments and vendors,” to the list of information now open to publicrecords requests.
Erik Fallis, spokesman for CSU, said the system “is oneof the most transparent, if not the most transparent, university system outthere” and emphasized much of what people want from foundations and auxiliariesis already available through IRS 990 forms, public agendas and “subject todisclosure under non-profit rules or federal or state laws.”
In May, USC and CSU dropped their opposition to the billonce a compromise on donor privacy was worked out. Now that the bill haspassed, Fallis said additional resources may be allocated to take on morepublic records requests.
“We’re going to work with our auxiliaries, certainly givethem the information they need to comply with the law,” he said. “And we’lllook into ways that the auxiliaries might need support in complying with thelaw.”
Over the three years SB 8 and the two preceding billswere trying to address the issue, there was no shortage of controversy involvingauxiliaries.
The most recent incident happened in 2010 when SarahPalin was scheduled to appear at California State University Stanislaus duringan engagement through the CSU Stanislaus Foundation. Inquiries by Yee and thepress for Palin’s contract were denied by the auxiliary organization.A controversy erupted after Stanislaus students later found documents relatedto Palin the university denied it had, and a judge eventually ruled CSU actedillegally when it withheld the information.
The law is a boon to journalists and donors curious aboutwhere their money is going, Keigwin said.
“I’ve talked to several reporters who have been waitingfor this law to go into effect for several years,” Keigwin said. “Theybasically have their … requests and are ready to hit ‘send’ on their computers.”
The legislation does not go into effect until Jan. 1,though Yee is urging UC and CSU to begin complying with requests immediately. Lawsin Colorado, Georgia, Minnesota and Nevada also make university foundationrecords public, though to varying degrees.
“Finally there will be real transparency to UC and CSU,and we’re looking forward to seeing how these universities are running theseorganizations and where the money is going,” Keigwin said.