Berkeley Molds Sunshine Ordinance By Judith Scherr

Friday March 31, 2006

The downpour didn’t stop some 30 people from searching for “sunshine”—open, accessible government—at a community meeting in City Hall Monday evening.  

Councilmember Kriss Worthington called the meeting to gather citizen input for a strong mandate for open government in Berkeley.  

The councilmember said he plans to use the citizen input to correct and enhance what he characterized as a “weak” draft sunshine ordinance written by the city attorney.  

Sunshine laws, which exist in San Francisco, Oakland, Contra Costa County, Benicia, Los Angeles and elsewhere, are local ordinances that strengthen state and federal open meeting and public information statutes. 

Opening more police records to the public, getting the library board to meet at a time when the public can participate, disallowing lawsuit settlements made before the public has a chance to see the agreements, permitting all who wish to address city officials at public meetings the right to do so. These were just a few of the issues brought to the table. 

“Democracies die behind closed doors,” said 40-year Berkeley resident Peter Sussman, quoting a judge who was speaking in secret deportation hearings. A newspaper and book editor and open government activist with the Society of Professional Journalists, Sussman gave an overview of the need for local sunshine laws. 

He pointed out that in the five years since a sunshine ordinance was first raised in Berkeley the city has made progress, especially in augmenting public information available on the city web site. 

Ensuring compliance with the sunshine ordinance will be key. 

“Commissions in San Francisco and Oakland monitor compliance,” Sussman said.  

The Berkeley city attorney’s draft, on the other hand, says that if citizens believe that the Sunshine Ordinance has been violated, they need to take their complaints to the city manager for relief. 

“There’s a lot of work left to do, because the people who decide what you should know are the very people about whom you’re trying to get information,” Sussman said. “So we’re leaving the fox in charge of the chicken coop.” 

Worthington said the task is two-pronged. One is strengthening and refining existing laws that guarantee open government and the second is educating the public about these laws. 

In a recent case, Worthington said, a commissioner on the Zoning Advisory Board shared a draft proposal with the public that was going to be reviewed by a ZAB subcommittee. He was chastised by his fellow commissioners for making the draft public. 

“We actually don’t need a sunshine ordinance to address that—it’s already state law,” Worthington said. “That person is required by law to give that information to the public.”  

Andrea Prichett of Berkeley’s Cop Watch said the city’s current system for providing police records is inadequate—it’s hard for a suspect to get arrest reports without an attorney, she said, and then when they get them, the reports are not those originally written by the officer, but a summary of the officer’s report, written by a supervisor. Also, the reports are heavily redacted, Prichett said. Prichett often works with people who are arrested and then have their charges dropped. Detailed police reports are particularly important in these cases, she said. 

Worthington pointed out that in the city attorney’s draft ordinance, the public has little power over public information available from the police department. 

Police can change public information policies at any time only “subject to advance public notice and review by the Police Review Commission,” the draft ordinance says. 

Participants also said any new ordinance should target all of the city’s boards and commissions. Worthington said the library board is particularly egregious in this area, having changed its meeting time to 5 p.m. “when working people can’t attend,” and listing items as oral reports on agendas, then taking action on them. 

Dean Metzger, Zoning Adjustment Board member, said something has to be done to prevent items coming to the City Council at the last minute and Carl Friberg said legal settlements should be made available to the public before the council votes on them. 

Worthington plans to compile the suggestions and turn them over to a volunteer attorney experienced in drafting sunshine ordinances. He will then propose a City Council workshop to review the draft, make final changes and then bring it to the council for a vote. If the council doesn’t approve it, he says he’ll bring it to the electorate, as was done in San Francisco. 

Those interested in raising issues for the ordinance can contact Worthington’s office at 981-7170 or worthington@ci.berkeley.ca.us.