In a year that saw few legislative accomplishments, Sen. Leland Yee’s largely successful efforts to take on executives of UC, CSU and community college systems stand out. Yee got two bills passed in the closing days of session, SB 218 and SB 219.
SB 218 was the more popular of the two, garnering a single no vote on the floor as it made its way through both houses. It would put the University of California, the California State University and the California Community Colleges under the jurisdiction of the California Public Records Act (PRA), a state law that gives people access to government decision making.
All three educational systems fought the bill, arguing that it could lead to a multimillion dollar increase in their administrative costs for handling the PRA requests and that it could also have a chilling effect on some donors who might not want their names made public.
Yee said a flow of news continuously emerged from the schools that contradicted their own claim that they did not need more transparency.
“They ended up being our best friends because every couple of weeks there was another article about some of the inappropriate dealings and malfeasance going on,” Yee said.
Earlier this year, a Superior Court judge ruled that a CSU trustee had a financial conflict of interest when he helped approve a construction contract at Fresno State University. Meanwhile, an executive at San Francisco City College has been indicted for using school funds for personal purposes.
The most damaging news may have been the hiring of two new UC chancellors earlier this year, at salaries much higher than their predecessors. These hires came under fire when UC system raised student fees 9.3 percent in May.
UC spokesman Pete King said they had asked the governor to veto the bill, despite the wide margin of passage.
“Our concern is that it would have a chilling effect on donors and volunteers,” King said, noting that “their activities would be subject to the public records act requests.”
While Yee took amendments meant to soften the impact of the bill on volunteers, King said there was still much “ambiguity and confusion” in the wording. He also said there has been a huge increase in anonymous donations to colleges nationwide—something he feared public institutions in California would now miss out on.
SB 218 was part of a larger package of bills to reform transparency and accountability in the college system. On Sept. 10, his SB 86, got to the governor’s desk; it prohibits pay increases for CSU trustees in any year when state general fund revenues fall. In late August, lawmakers passed SB 219, which expands whistleblower protections for UC employees.