“The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”
—Ralph M. Brown Act
Berkeley citizens elect the mayor and council, but that doesn’t mean they give away their power to them. When they have the time, energy, inclination—or when something makes residents so mad they can’t restrain themselves—they will rush to City Hall to let the decision makers know what’s on their minds.
But the door needs to be open for them when they walk in, say supporters of “sunshine,” a term often used to talk about transparency in government. Rules for addressing the city council (and commissions, task forces and more) need to be part of a process that welcomes citizens’ input and offers them the information they need in order to understand the problem they wish to address.
The City Council will hold a workshop on a Sunshine Ordinance written by city attorney Manuela Albuquerque before the regular council meeting at 5 p.m., March 20.
In recent years Berkeley has taken giant steps toward using the internet to broaden access to public information, such as posting meeting time and place on-line and giving electronic access to agendas and background information. Council and school board meetings are broadcast on cable television, over the radio and on the web.
Faced with the threat of a lawsuit from SuperBOLD (Berkeleyans Organizing for Library Defense) working with the Oakland-based First Amendment Project, the mayor has recently sponsored new rules for public comment at city meetings, correcting a decades-old policy of limiting public speakers to 10 only, chosen by lottery.
SuperBOLD members say that public comment rules should be written into the proposed sunshine ordinance. They insist that the Board of Library Trustees must also follow open meeting laws. The organization was formed when the Library Board voted to install radio frequency chips to track books without a public process to debate the controversial technology.
Reacting to a failing grade in public information as rated by a Contra Costa Times study of many cities, Police Chief Doug Hambleton last week promised the City Council he would improve public service for those seeking police records.
“Neighborhood groups have a hard time getting crime information,” said Councilmember Dona Spring, who is advocating for a strong Sunshine Ordinance. Spring said she never been able to get the police report on the death several years ago of Fred Lupke, well-known for his activism around disability and other issues. Lupke was killed by a motorist while riding in his wheelchair on Ashby Avenue.
Another example of a problem that needs to be remedied, Spring said, is when the city applied for a grant to plan a development on the Ashby BART station parking lot, but did not involve the community. The grant proposal should have come to the council and been discussed publicly, she said.
Other situations which a sunshine law might address include:
• the city’s relegating policy development to nonprofits, organizations or advisory bodies whose meetings are not public;
• delivering background documents to councilmembers at council meetings or on the same day as meetings, not allowing them or the public time to study issues they will vote on;
• council meetings that extend beyond 11 p.m., when councilmembers made critical decisions after the public is asleep or when they themselves are tired;
• closed session meetings which could be public;
• lawsuits settled in closed session without the public being given advance notice of an intent to settle.
How violations of a Sunshine Act will be adjudicated will be another issue that the City Council will have to consider. In her proposed sunshine law, the city attorney gives the power to the city manager.
“Letting the city manager handle sunshine complaints is a horrible idea,” said Rick Knee in an e-mail to the Planet. Knee is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Freedom of Information Committee and a member of the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance Task Force.
“The ordinance should provide for a permanent task force or commission, or at least an independent ombudsperson, to adjudicate sunshine complaints, prescribe remedies and impose penalties on willful violators, gauge the effectiveness of the ordinance and recommend changes to it,” he said.
The City Council will hold a Forum on a proposed Sunshine Ordinance March 20 at 5 p.m., 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
The draft sunshine ordinance and accompanying materials can be viewed at www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/citycouncil/agenda-committee/2007/packet/031207/2007-03-20%20DRAFT%20Work%20Item%2001a%20BATES%20Panel%20Discussion%20and%20Workshop%20on%20Draft%20Sunshine%20Ordinance.pdf