State bureaucrats get surprise smack down at hearing

March 7, 2013

By Katy Grimes


SACRAMENTO — It has never been more apparent that unelected state bureaucrats are also unaccountable to the Legislature. I attend legislative committee hearings every week, and despite the questions from lawmakers, the bureaucrats obfuscate, and get away with it.

High-speed rail is the most blatant example of this. Every hearing in which High-Speed Rail Authority CEO Jeff Morales has testified, leaves lawmakers shaking their heads because of his bureaucrat-speak — there are rarely answers to lawmakers’ questions.

And state bureaucrats get away with this.

A new Sheriff in town

The friendly, kind, portly bearded man who sat in the last row of the Assembly for six years is now in the Senate. Sen. Jim Beall may be kind and friendly, but Thursday he handed state bureaucrats their behinds. And it was a beautiful thing.

Used to speaking in circles at committee hearings, these bureaucrats, from the state Natural Resources agency, the troubled Parks and Recreation department, and the governor’s Department of Finance, didn’t know what hit them. It was as if Santa Clause had gone rogue.

Beall, a Democrat from San Jose, knows his way around a hearing room. He’s been a politician since he cut his teeth on the San Jose City Council, 1980 – 1994, as a county supervisor 1994 – 2006, and the Assembly 2006 – 2012.

The hearing was the Senate Committee on Budget and Fiscal Review, Subcommittee No. 2 on Resources, Environmental Protection, Energy and Transportation, and Beall made it very clear, politely, that he intended to get answers to his budget questions.

Troubled Parks Department appears still troubled

“The Parks and Recreation situation… what has taken place, since some of the funds have several problems?” Beall asked Farra Bracht with the Legislative Anakyst’s Office. Bracht explained the Dpartment of Finance went through all of the other special funds in the state, and matched them up with totals with what the Controller has.

“Regardless of the size of the fund, we need to make sure all of it is accounted for so we don’t get caught not accounting for it,” Beall said. “They are taxpayers funds.”

“This makes me nervous being chairman of the committee,” Beall said of the many special fund accounts in the state. “And when I am nervous, I do things.”

“A good starting point is to ask the Department of Finance what they are doing about it on an ongoing basis,” Bracht said.

Parks and Recreation scandal

While the State Parks and Recreation department was soliciting private donations to keep 70 state parks open, top agency employees were bilking the state for large vacation pay buyouts, and $54 million sat in a special fund, unreported.

Beall was relentless.

John Laird, the Secretary for the Natural Resources agency was unable to be at the hearing. Laird sent an Assistant Secretary for the agency in his place. But he mumbled his name, and no one asked him to identify himself again.  It was apparent Laird knew exactly which bureaucrat to send in his place if there was to be a grilling.

Kemp tried to quickly move away from the Parks and Rec scandal, but Beall instead asked him about the special funds. Kemp deferred to the Department of Finance.

And this is where the boring but masterful doublespeak and obfuscation began.

The Department of Finance said they were fully concerned with the problem, had done an extensive review of all special funds in the state treasury, and were satisfied there are no other cases of misrepresentation.

Beall asked about special funds not accounted for inside of the state treasury.

“We’re trying to determine the best way to do that, the best solution that satisfies everybody,” the finance representative said.

“You comments are so vague,” Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, added. “Your comments give me no comfort.”

“Our job is to make things work correctly  — we will do that,” Beall said.

Beall and Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, asked Kemp to let them know specifically, the information needed to deal appropriately with special fund issues. They each made it very clear that neither of them was going to be happy with surprises.

“What do we do to help you in working together, so we govern responsible,” Jackson asked.

“Be as open and transparent as possible,” the Natural Resources Assistant Secretary said. “So when we sit down and talk, we communicate openly.”

Clearly frustrated, Jackson said, “I guess that’s as good as I’m going to get today.”


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