Michael Harris, age 92, died in Chevy Chase, MD on Thursday, but his career was Californian through and through. Equally with Assemblyman Ralph M. Brown and Bud Carpenter of the League of California Cities, he’s to be credited with getting the state legislature to enact the nation’s first omnibus local government open meeting law. He wrote its lead, so to speak, as well—the work of an afternoon, we’re told, with Carpenter sitting across the table, drafting the legal specifics.
For Carpenter and the League, the main problem to be solved was not that there was no law requiring open meetings of local government bodies; it was that there were too many, each written to govern specific types of agencies—cities, counties, school and special district boards of various jurisdictions. How could a citizen keep track of all the variously shaded requirements?
Harris described that patchwork at the opening of his 10-part series in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Your Secret Government.” But the series also went on to describe how the few generally worded rules that were in place were too routinely evaded by circumlocution or just simply ignored, because there was no uniform remedy and no serious consequence for violation.
The series, written when Harris was a young veteran of World War II with only two years on the Chronicle’s reporting staff, still makes fascinating reading, since it shows an era so blithely indifferent to transparency principles that have come to win at least lip service as fundamentals of today’s politics. It also shows what the scene would be like today without the criminal penalty that so many have pooh-poohed as toothless.