Open Sesame

At an October candidate's forum at Cal State Fullerton, six of the seven secretary of state hopefuls promised they'd increase public access to government records. The exception was Edward C. Noonan of the American Independent Party. Noonan—who could double as a late-shift Kmart Santa Claus—inadvertently reminded the audience that Cold War-era politics still resonate for a few Americans.

“I'm the far Right,” he proudly declared as his eyes searched the crowd for a reaction. (None occurred.) “I'm to the right of the Republican Party.”

If elected, he said he'll work to increase the role of churches in politics and government. To a question about boosting citizen participation, he merely answered, “I'm 100 percent pro-Christian values.”

More like 100 percent nutbar. The other candidates—Larry Shoup (Green), Keith Olberg (Republican), Kevin Shelley (Democrat), Gail Lightfoot (Libertarian), Louise Marie Allison (Natural Law) and Valli Sharpe-Geisler (Reform)—appeared articulate and, well, sane. They said they'd increase voter registration, ballot sanctity and public access to state records. It was particularly refreshing to hear Olberg make “unconditional” assurances that he'd bring more “sunshine” to corporate files. But sadly, the GOP candidate—who in 1998 proposed a law to make abortion first-degree murder—also worked in the Assembly to shield some of those same records from citizens.

Though the job isn't sexy, it's too important to gamble away in an era of such corporate scandals as Enron. This state has a reputation for leading the way in government reform, but the reputation isn't deserved when it comes to the secretary of state's office. Republican Bill Jones, the current officeholder, placed draconian limits on citizen access to key government documents—in particular basic corporate-ownership information. While other states—including paleolithic Nevada, Arizona and Florida—allow online public access to these records, Jones made it nearly impossible for average citizens to trace corporate shenanigans. This has to change.

In the wake of the dark Jones era (he was also notorious for shamelessly politicizing the office for his personal benefit), state Assemblyman Shelley is the likeliest to follow through on his promise to improve the agency. Just one indication of the Democrat's pro-disclosure mentality was his much-needed legislative proposal to financially penalize state bureaucrats who illegally thwart public access. It would have been the law today if a nefarious Governor Gray Davis hadn't vetoed it.

Shelley isn't deterred. He says, “I'll change the system.”

We hope he gets the chance.

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