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California's Campaign Finance System Serves Up A Lump Of Coal To Secretary of State Debra Bowen

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Friday, December 23 2011

Photo: Flickr/SeeWeb

The year ended on a sour note for California Secretary of State Debra Bowen as her office weathered a barrage of criticism after the state's campaign finance reporting system buckled after years of neglect.

California's 12-year-old Automated Lobbying and Campaign Contribution and Expenditure Search System, or CAL-ACCESS, went down at the end of November, and hasn't been able to get back up again in full form.

The system's most recent failure, and the secretary of state's ongoing inability to prevent such failures with timely upgrades, have sparked off a fresh round of criticism from government transparency advocates as well as the Sacramento Bee's editorial department.

The newspaper's editorial page writers said that the CAL-ACCESS fiasco is just the latest example of the secretary of state's office not being able to keep up technologically.

Local elections officials also used this most recent tech failure to vent their frustrations with the office in a recent report byCalifornia Watch, a blog of the Center for Investigative Reporting.

"Sometimes, I feel like we’re having to knock really hard on the door and scream that we’re out here and need time and attention and guidance and leadership," Gail Pellerin, president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials told California Watch. "It’s been really hard to get a seat at the table."

The campaign finance system first went down November 30th. So far, the California secretary of state's office has only managed to restore spotty access. In the meantime, the office has been uploading scanned filings onto its web site, which is ironic given a recent push by State Senator Leland Lee (D-San Mateo/San Francisco) to introduce legislation to ban the practice and to require open formats for government documents on the web.

A spokeswoman for the California secretary of state's office Nicole Winger told techPresident that the office is working hard to restore internet access to the database.

"Our information technology staff successfully modified the database, reprogrammed websites and applications, and ported CAL-ACCESS off of the ancient server cluster. CAL-ACCESS is starting to work with slowed response times, so staff are tuning the application to operate in the new environment and testing it. Therefore, staff are confident CAL-ACCESS will be back online within the next few days," she writes.

A more permanent fix isn't going to be easy. In an explainer published last week, the secretary of state's office said the system is "a suite of applications developed in 13 different programming languages, and runs on an "uncommon version of the Unix operating system called Tru64."

It then went through a list of technical milestones that needed to be reached to restore full access.

The office ended its explainer by stating that "CAL-ACCESS is now very old and fragile, and few people in the United States are familiar with the antiquated technology used to build and operate the system. The recovery efforts will make CAL-ACCESS stable and get it running, but it can never be more robust or feature-laden. Ideally, we need a fresh start with an all-new CAL-ACCESS."

Yet Bowen has told California Watch that that isn't in the cards soon because of the state's abysmal finances.

Winger notes that California state legislators did work on a bill that would have created a new system earlier this year, but the legislation stalled in the Assembly's appropriations committee because of the projected cost.

She adds:

Secretary Bowen has pointed to the already-stretched-thin state budget, a painfully lengthy government procurement process, and this agency’s two large IT projects already underway as part of the reality that must be considered. However, it is also realistic to talk creatively about what could replace the current CAL-ACCESS that is now on a newer server.

The secretary of state's office will examine its chances of additional funding when Governor Jerry Brown unveils his budget proposal for 2012-2013 in January, she said.

For his part, Yee announced last week that he would introduce legislation to double lobbyists' registration fees to better finance maintenance of the system.

Given all of this, it seems that there's a lot of work, and a substantial discussion to be had in California about how best to push forward with government transparency in 2012.