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Sunshine laws like the Brown Act and the California Public Records Act (CPRA) are in themselves no guarantee of preventing the kind of bureaucratic organized crime that former elected and appointed leaders of the City of Bell were prosecuted for. Those offenses involved such practices as city council members collecting pay for their momentary meetings on do-nothing boards created simply to justify that pay and, on the part of the city manager and his assistant, manipulating certain contract documents and hiding others to hide astonishingly high pay for themselves and the police chief.
If officials are prepared to resort to outright lies, conspiracy and fraud to advance schemes they know the public would never accept, the open government laws may not stop them. But these and other transparency laws will make corruption much harder to commit and sustain, if reporters and citizen watchdogs understand and use them confidently and consistently. This is what was not happening in Bell—until the Los Angeles Times stumbled onto some rumors and odd gaps in information and began using the CPRA aggressively to uncover layer upon layer of astonishing self-dealing.
Even in the majority of communities free from criminal leadership, this guide will supply sometimes neglected or overlooked information that can be real news for journalists, fodder for public discussion by bloggers and other watchdogs, and an agenda for action by alert citizens.
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