Want to know why the City of San Jacinto is spending $2,500 on the words and wisdom of former President George W. Bush? Or why the local governments of Western Riverside County are looking to raise $175,000 for the former President's speaking fees?
That money is being spent. Oh, they claim its "private donations" that are going to 43. But already, the city of San Jacinto has come forth as a donor and is using public funds to pay the entrance fee to the event.
Congratulations, Inland Empire, you may be about to hire yourselves a "meet and greet" and "dinner and leadership address" from W.
Except you, the public, can't go.
The Western Riverside Council of Governments (Banning is a member) has hired Bush to appear at 22nd annual "General Assembly and Leadership Address" on June 13 at the Morongo Casino. The session kicks off with election of new officers and a review of the past year for the agency.
With that out of the way, the public will be asked to leave a public meeting. Just as the cocktails and salty snacks come out.
Then the fun begins. High-rollers who kick in $50,000 a table get an up close and personal with the President, including 10 shake-and-grin pictures. Lesser donors, like poor little San Jacinto, get less time and just one picture. Everyone gets to hear the speech, except the public, who are contractually barred from attending all of their own regional governmental agency's annual meeting.
The price for the event is top secret - President Bush's contract with the public agency specifically forbids release of the cost of his speaking fee, or the agency will be in breach of contract and could lose half of its $175,000. That would be an $87,500 loss to the taxpayers of greater Riverside.
The good folks at the WRCOG offices were all too happy to sign that contract, and expressed such giddiness at snaring "43" to speak at Morongo that they characterized it as "jumping out of their skins" in emails I obtained.
The top-secret cover was blown because the Western Riverside Council of Governments is a tax-supported agency, its budget drawn from the various local cities and water districts. And that happy fact brings it under the control of the state public documents and meetings laws.
California has a constitutional amendment, approved by 83 percent of the voters, that basically says private meetings like that are verboten.
When the Riverside Press-Enterprise reported back in March that the president's fee was secret, this journalist filed a public documents request. The council put off answering as long as possible, but coughed up the contract this week.
It failed to disclose a lot. While a council spokeswoman still says "private donations" will cover the $175,000 cost, the written materials don't say who those donors will be. The only confirmed one in the documents is not a private donor - it's the city of San Jacinto, a member of the WRCOG.
Clearly, local governments are being asked to fork over a minimum of $2,500 each to send their delegates to the casino.
And the use of "private donations" may be worse than public funds. Just whom is donating their money to the local politicians, and what are they asking in return? Not disclosed.
Also not disclosed: just what private company will lend its corporate plane ("Gulfstream III or equivalent -- no donations of chartered aircraft will be accepted"). The representative for Bush's speaking agency estimated that could cost "50 to 60K." And, who is paying for it?
So, a public agency is passing the hat for $175,000 plus airfare for our 43rd President. It agreed to keep that secret from you, the taxpayer. It agreed to keep you out of the room. It happily agreed to keep pesky reporters out, too.
I don't care if President Bush, Hillary Clinton or Mother Teresa is speaking. I want to know what my tax money is doing. If Mr. Bush can’t abide by the open meetings and public documents laws and constitution of California, there's a Texas term for that: tough beans.
This should make you mad. Call your mayor, and complain. This is your money.
Hans Laetz is a kinda-retired, kinda-freelance journalist in Los Angeles, and has been fighting public access battles for most of his 40-year career in news.