Let the Sun Shine in Berkeley

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday May 29, 2008 - 10:04:00 AM

If you sometimes read the Planet online (and we hope you do) you will have seen our new experimental web-only feature, The Editor’s Back Fence. It’s a collection of items too small or too silly to dignify with print, and will appear randomly at the executive editor’s pleasure. Of course it has another goal, to motivate readers to check out the really-Daily-online Planet each and every day so that they don’t miss anything. This week I answered a teacher’s complaint that our education reporter didn’t talk to a school principal for a story she did. That’s one of those “thank you for asking” questions, and you can see the full reply online. But it also served the purpose of opening up a larger topic that can’t be addressed too often or too seriously.  

In the 30 or so years since I’ve been doing serious reporting the question of the citizen’s right of access to information about what the government’s up to has been central. The basic provisions of the federal Freedom of Information Act date back to the mid-’60s, when memories of abuses of government authority in the McCarthy era were still fresh.  

Further improvements were made in the mid-’70s, despite Republican vetoes, and it’s been up and down ever since. Many of us enjoyed getting records of government surveillance of our ’60s political activities in the late ’70s, often with humorous details of how the watchers had completely misunderstood what they were seeing.  

Ever since then, the concept of freedom of information has waxed and waned at the federal level. Some states, California being one, have jumped aboard the bandwagon with their own legislation applying to the actions of state government, with varying degrees of effectiveness. A related area is addressed by open meeting laws like California’s Brown Act, which seek to guarantee that citizens can always monitor activities of public bodies and comment on them. 

The value of laws like these in enabling democratic and effective governmental decision-making can’t be over-emphasized. It’s the parallel job of the press to make sure that even when citizens can’t attend all meetings in person or read every government document they will still be informed and active voters. A number of forward-looking California cities, notably San Francisco and Oakland, have taken the concept a step further and extended it to municipal government.  

Berkeley, surprisingly, has lagged way behind the curve—our own Sunshine Ordinance has been on the back burner for more than six years now. An energetic group of self-starters is now working to solve that problem, and, as of a few City Council meetings ago, they’re dragging city officials behind them, kicking and screaming all the way of course. 

Why wouldn’t public officials want citizens to know what they’re up to? That’s a question you probably don’t need me to answer for you, but I have a few suggestions.  

Number one: money. In this issue we have a Public Eye column by a fire-breathing civic activist who’s outraged by the high salaries and big raises public safety employees have managed to snag for themselves. It took a lawsuit by the Contra Costa Times to get information on police pay in Oakland released, but the result is that now it’s pretty widely available there and elsewhere, including Berkeley.  

Number two: embarrassment. Mistakes are made everywhere, but nobody likes to see them publicized. Nevertheless, if the Planet hadn’t learned that toxic dredging spoils were being dumped on sensitive habitat in Aquatic Park, it might still be happening. The California Public Records Act requests we filed made a big difference for our stories, though without citizen tips we wouldn’t have known about it at all. 

The fairly recent practice of inserting oxymoronic Public Information Officers in between government and the press seldom helps information flow. Unfortunately, many who hold these jobs seem to regard themselves as gatekeepers, eager to deliver the good news but to hide the bad.  

With occasional exceptions, getting information out of the Berkeley police has been like pulling teeth ever since the Planet was revived and before. PIOs come and go, but the problem persists. The Los Angeles Times, in a story on the recent killing of a student from southern California, mentioned, as if it were surprising, that they couldn’t get Berkeley police to return their calls. We’re used to it, although some individual PIOs have made more effort than others. 

Individual police officers at crime scenes are strictly forbidden to talk to press or public. This sometimes creates a lot of anxiety, as in last week’s chase of car hijackers through the Claremont District hills, with many police cars from several jurisdictions visible for hours. Concerned citizens often call the Planet in situations like this, but we can seldom tell them much, though we do our best to find out what’s up. Reporters with many years of experience on the crime beat say they’ve never worked anywhere that it was harder to get information from the police than Berkeley. 

Many, though not all, school employees seem to think they’re similarly restricted. We do get lots of enthusiasm about worthwhile projects from school sources, but there’s an understandable tendency to want to sweep problems under the rug. 

What could a Berkeley Sunshine Ordinance add to the provisions of the California Public Records Act and the Brown Act? Both have many loopholes easily exploited by officialdom. At best they’re bare bones, but a tough BSO would put some meat (or tofu, if you prefer) into the mix.  

A couple of examples: An enormous percentage of the information the City Council and commissions needs to make decisions is TBD, To Be Delivered. It’s not online. It’s not in the printed packets sent out ahead of time. Often it’s reviewed hastily during meetings, if at all, by the decision-makers, and it’s not given to the press or to citizens in time for meaningful public input into the decision process beforehand. 

And then there’s the public’s right to have input at the meetings themselves. Rules for how this is to be done have been modified in Berkeley in the past year under threat of a lawsuit because of actual Brown Act violations, but there’s still room for a lot of improvement. There’s a pressing need for rules which are clearly codified and always followed, especially when the moderator is a mayor who is, shall we say delicately, distractible.  

When the citizen committee’s Berkeley Sunshine Ordinance draft is in close-to-final form, we hope to put it up on the Planet’s web site, to give our readers a last chance to add their ideas to the mix. In the meantime, please send us your letters and comments about pressing issues which you’d like to make sure are addressed by the drafters, and we’ll pass them on. Open government is everyone’s responsibility.