Senate Bill 8 shines light on auxiliary organizations

Brett Johnson


Sacramento State alumnus Edward Ober realized a long-awaited goal Sept. 7 when an amendment he originally designed to increase transparency in the higher education system was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown. 

Under Senate Bill 8, all financial records and contracts of the California State University, University of California and California Community College auxiliaries are available to the public upon request. According to information from the CSU Chancellor’s Office, 20 percent of its operating budget was held within auxiliaries and foundations in 2009.

Sen. Leland Yee, who entered the bill into legislation, attempted to pass these measures twice prior, but both were vetoed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger despite bipartisan support.

The passage of this bill was highly anticipated by Ober, who came up with the idea for it as a political science student at Sacramento State.

In 2008, Ober was on a campus committee researching why the Hornet Bookstore was contracted out to a private company, and how much money was behind the bookstore’s privatization.

When he filed a public records request with University Enterprises, Inc. for information on the matter, he was denied access on the basis that a court case from 10 years prior had ruled private auxiliaries exempt from the California Public Records Act.

“At the time, I was appalled that the cost of school was going up so much,” Ober said. “I thought ‘There has to be money here somewhere,’ but without the right to know how money is being appropriated within our schools’ auxiliaries, how could we find out?”

After some digging, Ober found the court’s ruling suggested that an amendment be made. Ober took initiative and wrote a proposal to amend the California Public Records Act to include the auxiliaries and foundations of the CSU, UC and community colleges, and promptly gathered support of the California Faculty Association.

“Once we heard the proposal, our campus chapter unanimously voted to recommend it to our statewide committee,” said Kevin Wehr, president of Sac State’s chapter of the California Faculty Association. “We desperately needed the Public Records Act to be clarified so that the public and the media could hold state university auxiliaries accountable for their actions.”

After recruiting the support of the California Newspaper Association and Yee, the three-year battle to push this piece of legislation through the state Senate began. Even with the bill passing, it will not take effect until Jan. 1, 2012.

“I am extremely excited and very gratified that this change could be made after all these years,” Ober said. “I have a lot of people to thank for it: Sen. Yee, David Hawkins and everyone else at the California Faculty Association, Tom Newton and the California Newspaper Association and all of the faculty at Sac State who encouraged me to pursue this.”

CSU spokesman Erik Fallis said the CSU system is one of the most transparent public institutions in the nation, and its only concern originally with SB 8 was protecting donor anonymity, which they made sure was part of the bill’s language.

The bill protects the identity of donors to CSU, UC and community college foundations, in the case they wish to remain anonymous. The only exceptions are in situations in which the donor receives something from the university valued at more than $2,500, or when the donor wants to alter course curriculum.

“Once we reached agreement on the subject of donor anonymity, the CSU was completely supportive of the bill,” Fallis said. “We have always had a tendency toward full and complete disclosure by law, by policy and by practice.”

Sac State in February received an A+ in Public Records Act compliance from Californians Aware, a nonprofit organization focused on government transparency. The compliance ranking does not reflect auxiliaries, but Fallis said the CSU’s auxiliaries have always complied with legally required audits that disclose spending information, which are available to the public.

“While Senate Bill 8 will allow for another avenue for the public to access this sort of information, there is not much to find that is not already subject to the public’s eye,” Fallis said. “The CSU system is pretty much an open book when it comes to disclosure.”

Wehr remains convinced that making auxiliary organizations such as UEI subject to public records requests will shine some light on undiscovered impropriety.

“There are a lot of rumors that get around about questionable decisions and misappropriation behind closed doors,” Wehr said. “Let’s just say we are looking forward to seeing what comes out of this.”

Brett Johnson can be reached at [email protected]


Partial list of Senate Bill 8 supporters

American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees

California Faculty Association

California Newspaper Publishers Association

Academic Professionals of California

California Broadcasters Association

California Federation of Teachers

California State University Employees Union

California Taxpayers Association

California Teachers Association

Californians Aware

Coalition of California Utility Employees

Pacific Media Workers Guild

University of California

University of California Student Association

Source: California State Senate’s website