Recovering from surgery, Councilmember Dona Spring planned to spend Thursday night in front of her television set watching one of the most important Zoning Adjustment Board (ZAB) meetings of the year.
But when she turned to public access channel 33, the screen was blank.
“I just figured somehow the meeting was canceled or something,” she said.
But the ZAB did meet and approved what will be the third tallest building in Berkeley. They just didn’t do it from their usual home in front of the cameras at Old City Hall, which was listed as the meeting location on the city’s website. Instead, because of a scheduling conflict with the Rent Stabilization Board, the meeting was switched, without notice, to the North Berkeley Senior Center, which has no television hook-up.
“I bet some people ended up going to the wrong building,” said Spring. “It just makes people so angry.”
Even some of those who made it to the senior center were fuming.
“They’ve just gotten really sloppy about this stuff,” said Zelda Bronstein, who learned from a friend the night before that the meeting location still listed on the city’s website was incorrect.
While even its toughest critics agree Berkeley has made strides in getting information to the public and giving proper notice for meetings since the days when the school board was scolded for holding a closed meeting on an airplane en route to Los Angeles, trying to keep tabs on the machinations of city government and its 38 active commissions can still be a challenge.
And the city’s most widely-read source for information, its website, isn’t always its most reliable.
A quick check through the city’s homepage Friday showed that of four commission meetings scheduled for Monday, only one, the Peace and Justice Commission, had its agenda on-line. Last Tuesday morning, after the Labor Day holiday, seven out of thirteen commissions scheduled to meet that week hadn’t posted their agendas. Among them were two of the city’s most important citizen boards, the ZAB and the Planning Commission.
Residents looking for online minutes of prior meetings might also be disappointed. Roughly half of city commissions that meet regularly were at least two meetings behind on posting minutes.
“The web postings should definitely happen because people mostly rely on that,” said City Clerk Sherry Kelly. She added that she would remind departments to deliver agendas and meeting minutes promptly.
Kelly said commission secretaries are responsible for delivering electronic copies of agendas to the clerk’s office five days before the scheduled meeting.
“Sometimes it could be that the commission didn’t get [the agenda] to us, but some issues could happen on our end. If everyone sends us an agenda on the same day, we don’t have the capacity to post them all,” she said.
Initially, individual commissions were supposed to post agendas and meeting minutes to the website, but Kelly said the city was concerned that there could be a breakdown if the clerk’s office didn’t take responsibility for posting.
Anne Burns, secretary of the Design Review Commission, which hasn’t posted minutes for its past two meetings, blamed herself for her commission’s tardiness. “It seems things are a little more unmanageable than they usually are,” she said. “I know that’s no excuse.”
Gisele Sorensen, secretary of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), which hasn’t posted minutes for six of its meetings dating back to January, cited numerous factors contributing to the lag. The LPC, she said, demands a more thorough narrative description of the meetings which take longer to draft, the department’s intern now only works 19 hours a week and often when she presents meeting minutes for approval, commissioners request changes which further delay their completion.
The LPC, like many commissions, is also supposed to deliver the staff reports sent to commission members to the main library for public viewing. But Berkeley resident and retired planner John English said when he visits the reference desk on Saturday looking for the LPC commission packet for a meeting that Monday, he doesn’t always find what he’s looking for.
“Often it’s there, but too often it is not,” he said. “I’m not pointing a finger at individual members of staff, but one is not able to look at numerous controversial issues.”
Berkeley is under no requirement to post commission agendas and meeting minutes to its website, said Terry Francke of Californians Aware, an organization that promotes open government. State law only requires that agendas for regular meetings be physically posted in the public view 72 hours before the meeting and that commission packets with staff reports be made available to the public no later than when the commissioners receive them.
By merely trying to post commission information to its webpage Berkeley has gone above and beyond most California cities, including Oakland. But among cities that do put commission meeting information on-line, most are updated more diligently than Berkeley’s. Nearly all of San Francisco’s commissions, for instance, had their future agendas posted and their meeting minutes up to date this past week.
One factor separating San Francisco and Berkeley is that San Francisco has a “Sunshine Ordinance” which regulates how it dispenses public information and sets up a task force to enforce the law.
The San Francisco law requires that a commission must post its meeting agenda to its Internet site at least 72 hours before a regular meeting and must complete its official minutes no later than 10 days after the meeting at which the minutes were adopted.
Berkeley’s drive for a similar ordinance stalled over a year ago, Kelly said, when a citizen group charged to work with her on a measure fell apart.
“I never got back comments on what I submitted,” Kelly said. “I was uncomfortable drafting an ordinance without getting feedback from the public.”
Judith Scherr, a member of the Berkeley Citizens’ Sunshine Committee, said that even though the citizen group disbanded, city officials shouldn’t just shrug and walk away.
“It would have been good if professionals got reinvolved, even if citizens don’t push the issue,” she said.