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Public Business in Private

March 07, 1985

The California Lottery Commission is taking its time in setting up the lottery that voters approved last November. Some people complain that Gov. George Deukmejian dragged his feet on a measure that he opposed, and others explain that the commission is exercising proper prudence in creating what will be one of the largest legal gambling operations in the country. Either way, the March 21 deadline set by the initiative will not be met, though there seems little harm in that.

Of more concern is the cavalier attitude that the commission has taken toward the public, which should be in on the current planning. The commission and the governor's office refuse to make public a detailed "briefing book" on how to run a lottery that state officials put together for Deukmejian last year. "It's privileged," says Bob Taylor, a Deukmejian spokesman, relying on an exception to the law that allows "correspondence of or to the governor" to be kept private. Nonsense. The briefing book is not an internal state document. The governor has turned it over to a state agency for the purpose of implementing the lottery. The briefing book is not privileged. It was assembled on public time and at public expense, and it deals with the public's business. There seems to be nothing confidential about it that justifies its being kept secret. It is the guide that the commission is using, and it needs to be made public.

That's not all. To conduct their business, the five members of the Lottery Commission have established two-member committees that study individual questions. The public is barred from the meetings and field trips of these committees in flagrant violation of state law. The public has a need to know and a right to know what its government is doing. Because the lottery is fraught with potential for corruption, public scrutiny is essential.

Compare the situation in California with the situation in Oregon, whose voters also passed a lottery initiative on Election Day. Though Gov. Victor G. Atiyeh opposed the lottery in Oregon, he promptly appointed the commissioners and set them on their way. Under the direction of Robert W. Smith, the Oregon Lottery Commission has been a model of openness. Reporters have even been invited to attend staff meetings there. Oregon has operated on the premise that everything that the commission does is public unless there is good and legal reason for it not to be. California has taken exactly the opposite tack.

Howard Varner, the retired head of the Host International restaurant company who is chairman of the California Lottery Commission, defends his exclusion of the public from the commission's activities as follows: "It's not uncommon in business. This is a business . . . . I think it's a more efficient use of time."

He needs to learn the difference between the public's business and a private business. The people want to know what the government is doing in our name and with our money. The government belongs to the people, not to those who are entrusted with its care.

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