The citizens’ group working on an alternative version of the Berkeley city attorney’s draft sunshine ordinance—which promises greater access to open government—will hold a public meeting at the Lutheran Church of the Cross Sept. 9 to get community input on their recently released document.
The group spent the better part of the summer crafting the draft after the Berkeley City Council in April postponed the public hearing on the city attorney’s draft ordinance and granted the group a 90-day extension to complete its work.
City officials have been working on a local sunshine ordinance since 2001, when at the request of Councilmember Kriss Worthington the City Council asked the city manager’s office to look into improving the city’s sunshine policies, including the adoption of an ordinance.
“A draft ordinance was drawn up by former City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque but was deemed unsatisfactory by many,” said Dean Metzger, a spokesperson for the group. “So, concerned Berkeley citizens with widespread public support volunteered their help.”
This informal 10-member group—consisting of neighborhood leaders, political advocates, lawyers, members of the League of Women Voters, commissioners, former city officials and a former Berkeley mayor—worked with dozens of interested citizens to form a 34-page draft Sunshine Ordinance, which was turned over to the City Council for review Tuesday.
Hundreds of e-mails were exchanged among community members—both political “insiders” and “outsiders”—who signed up through a public process.
Metzger said the group’s advisers included public interest lawyer Terry Francke from Californians Aware and experienced sunshine advocates from San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose.
“We are at a point where we need to finish it,” he said. “We are calling it the formal draft and leaving the draft part in there. We want to see if anyone has major problems or major good ideas that we missed and make the final changes before we submit it to council in October.”
Local sunshine ordinances, members of the citizens group said, strengthen the provisions of California’s Brown Act and Public Records Act to further protect public participation in democracy.
The draft, Metzger said, attempts to maintain a critical balance between democratic participation and governmental flexibility.
“Information is power, and the purpose of any sunshine ordinance is to maximize the flow of information in the democracy—downward, from government to citizens, by minimizing secrecy; and upward, from citizens to decision makers, by maximizing public input,” a separate document summarizing the draft said.
“The challenge is to accomplish these goals in a way that is fair to all participants and does not obstruct legitimate government business. We feel it is important to encourage political participation by maintaining courtesy in public processes. Clear, fair rules, with means of redress, help to do this.”
The draft points to the lack of enforcement as the Achilles heel of all sunshine ordinances, and emphasizes that one of the goals of a sunshine commission is to head off lawsuits by raising awareness, integrating sunshine into public processes and gradually changing the culture of government.
The summary states that the “sunshine ordinance must be specific enough that violations are legally clear, which necessarily occurs at the cost of brevity and some flexibility.”
Members of the group have stressed from the very beginning that unless sunshine laws are enforceable in court they are completely meaningless.
The draft ordinance facilitates enforcement by placing the burden of judicial redress upon a sunshine commission—which will enforce the ordinance—and the City of Berkeley, but adds that the essence of the ordinance is to be proactive and to help citizens and government work together more constructively.
• Assures that meetings take place when and where people are most able to attend.
• Keeps decision making in the open, and gives the public the right to know how their representatives voted in closed sessions.
• Requires frequent enough City Council meetings so that meetings adjourn around 11 p.m.
• Provides an orderly, predictable, and efficient structure for council meetings, while accommodating public participation protected by the Brown Act.
• Ensures adequate time for decision makers to hear from the public and study relevant information before voting on an issue.
• Permits the public to place items on the agendas of the City Council and commissions with 25 signatures.
• Provides fair but flexible public comment opportunities at all meetings, while generally allowing city commissions to decide their own procedures.
• Informs citizens about the significant activities of their representatives on regional agencies.
• Creates a Community Engagement Process that assures public input on projects of citywide impact, such as budgets, area plans, and city-university relations.
Access to information
• Designates staff and organizes records to assist with public information requests.
• Guarantees timely access to public information, and minimizes delay and cost of obtaining copies of important documents.
• Prohibits arbitrary withholding and redaction of city documents requested by the public.
• Establishes an independent, appointed Sunshine Review Commission, with protections against influence by the City Council, city officials, and others.
• Authorizes the commission to work proactively with staff and decision makers to improve public processes, noticing, and access to information.
• Requires timely rulings by the commission on alleged sunshine violations, and provides penalties for violations in accord with existing Berkeley and state law.
• Provides a legal budget for the commission to bring enforcement actions, and minimizes financial risk for individuals seeking to address violations.
Public meeting 7–9:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 9, at the Lutheran Church of the Cross, 1744 University Ave. For a copy of the Sunshine Ordinance, e-mail Metzger at firstname.lastname@example.org or see www.berkeleydailyplanet.com.