Most of us hold an unshakable belief that an informed citizenry is the very heart of democracy. Motivated by this belief, our citizens group is drafting a Sunshine Ordinance intended to make the workings of our local government transparent. Similar ordinances have already been adopted by several Bay Area cities, but the effort has been repeatedly delayed here. Who in Berkeley could possibly oppose this idea? Not surprisingly, officials who benefit from keeping the public ill-informed have for years resisted shedding light on City business. Now, however, these sunshine-obstructionists, led by Mayor Bates, have sprung into action; they are promoting a weak, so-called “Sunshine Ordinance” in an effort to preempt our proposal.
In reality, their bill is more of a sunset ordinance—an ineffective proposal with no enforcement provisions, only masquerading as sunshine. It’s based on a skeleton draft prepared by former City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque before she left office. It’s on today’s (April 22) council agenda, because the Agenda Committee refused to postpone the matter long enough to hear a presentation from our citizens’ group, which has, for over a year, worked on its own open-government measure that provides real sunshine for Berkeley residents.
So, why is Mayor Bates suddenly in such a rush? Maybe it’s because this is an election year, and he’d like credit for passing a sunshine ordinance, no matter how ineffective it is. Maybe he really prefers Albuquerque’s weaker version to the one written by citizens, for citizens. Her draft is based on a resolution passed by the council nearly five years ago, but never implemented. It’s loaded with discretionary language allowing officials and bureaucrats (rather than citizens) to determine how much open government the public will be allowed. Put bluntly, the mayor’s proposal is empty rhetoric. It does nothing to expand existing law; it would, in fact, allow the city to continue current practices, which shut the public out of the decision-making process.
Yet, it was the mayor who convened a Sunshine Workshop in March of 2007, to which four distinguished panelists were invited to give their views; they were Terry Francke of Californians Aware, Jinky Gardner of the League of Women Voters, Mark Schlosberg of the ACLU, and Judith Scherr of the Society of Professional Journalists. All petitioned the mayor in a hand-delivered letter, dated April 2, to postpone voting on the Albuquerque proposal until citizen alternatives have been heard; none favored the mayor’s proposal. So why, after having solicited their opinions, is the mayor prepared to ignore their advice? There is only one answer—Mayor Bates and his allies want to keep the current system with its built-in barriers to open government—barriers like these:
• Present practice is to publish the City Council’s agenda on the Thursday before each Tuesday meeting, leaving only two to three business days for interested parties to study the items, obtain information, and respond. This leaves almost no chance for councilmembers to receive and consider dissenting opinions.
• Key documents relating to agenda items are sometimes posted on Thursday, but are often listed as “to be delivered.” In these cases, neither the public nor councilmembers see the documents until the beginning of the meeting; there is no time to seek background information, let alone prepare a reasonable response.
• Published documents are often sanitized to include only arguments supporting staff recommendations; key internal staff memos stating contrary possibilities never see the light of day.
• Members of the public are typically given no more than two minutes each to state their case—and often are allowed only one minute to speak. Once public comment is received, the floor is closed to citizens, while staff and Councilmembers are allowed to discuss the issues among themselves. There is no procedure by which the public may correct misstatements before councilmembers vote.
• The public has the right, under state law, to examine documents that were not revealed prior to the debate, but the city typically delays its response to such requests—and when it does reply, it often claims that these documents are “privileged” or “confidential.” Usually, the city refuses to produce any draft memoranda or preliminary studies exchanged among staff and elected officials.
Given all of the above, it’s no surprise that staff recommendations are usually adopted word-for-word. Where staff is overruled, it’s because of behind-the-scenes lobbying, rather than as the result of public debate. The Albuquerque/Bates draft does nothing to address the above issues. In fact, it perpetuates Berkeley’s practice of government-by-stealth, and it ignores the hard truth, that when the city acts outside of the public good, citizens may only learn about it too late to react.
The people who have signed this commentary are members of a citizens’ Sunshine Committee, which has written a Sunshine Ordinance that lives up to its name. The meetings are open to everyone and include people who call themselves “progressive” and people who call themselves “moderate.” Some may like the mayor, and others may not. What unites us all is a concern that the council has routinely made policy without full disclosure to the public and without its valuable input.
Berkeley is in desperate need of a strong Sunshine Ordinance. The mayor’s proposal is nothing of the sort and is only another sad example of how important matters are decided in the dark. It should be rejected until the public has had a chance to consider the strong Sunshine Ordinance written by Berkeley citizens, for Berkeley citizens. Then a public hearing should be held, and only after that, should the City Council take action. This is what good government is all about.
The Berkeley Sunshine Committee meets weekly and welcomes new members. Write to email@example.com or contact the League of Women Voters for more information.