We all want and expect to know what is going on in our government, yet history shows that we rarely achieve this goal. Whether it’s in City Hall, Sacramento or Washington, we are angry when we find out that action was taken on the flimsiest of information and decisions were made behind closed doors that profoundly affect our lives, and we have had no chance to know about it, let alone add our two cents. That’s the very opposite of democracy and our system of representative government no matter where it occurs or when it happens. It cannot be denied that no one can represent the people when the people don’t know what their representative is doing and the representative doesn’t know how the people feel.
When we come up against the closed doors and drawn shades of government we protest and after awhile it all seems to die down until the next problem comes up. That has got to change because the next problem always lands on our doorstep. Thinking about it locally, it’s not just about secret agreements with the university, it’s also about the many times that staff reports aren’t delivered to the City Council until the council is poised to vote on something and because the report was late, neither the council nor the public has had a chance to think about the matter, let alone read the report. It’s about too many people jammed into the Council Chambers so that people can’t even get into the room to speak. It’s about meetings being adjourned before public comment has been completed and creating an atmosphere of frustration where civil and deliberate discourse dies an early death. It’s about denying the public the right to know how their representatives voted in a closed session even when a motion failed and no action was taken. It’s about being told you would have two minutes to speak to the council only to find out at the last minute you will have only one minute. It’s about trying to find out something and being told that certain documents won’t be released because of “executive privilege.”
We could go on, but you get the point. Some of you might not care because you work long and hard and just don’t think that it involves you. Consider this: There always comes a time when you suddenly understand that information is crucial, whether it’s when casting your vote on a confusing ballot measure after being bombarded with opposite claims by supporters and opponents, or commenting on your neighbor’s plan to put another story on his house that cuts off your view or lose sunlight in your garden. You need accurate information to make informed and effective choices. An informed citizenry is the cornerstone of our democracy. We citizens are the ultimate check and balance to every bureaucrat and politician at the local, state and federal level, particularly now that we live in a time of professional politicians, spin doctors and diminishing newsprint.
Essential to your role as an effective decision maker is a strong sunshine law, and now that’s exactly what we are trying to bring you in Berkeley. About two years ago, the city came up with a sunshine ordinance that was so full of holes it resembled a large sieve. A group of citizens were so alarmed about the council adopting a sieve rather than a real ordinance that they came together to try and get something better. Over the last two years, around eight to ten residents with a much larger group of people that constituted an advisory group have met regularly and worked to create that real ordinance that Berkeley so desperately needs. We analyzed the sunshine ordinances that other cities had enacted, learned about their problems, and slowly began the daunting process of creating comma-by-comma, word-for-word, sentence-by-sentence a strong Berkeley Sunshine Ordinance that could be enforced. Our goal: an ordinance that would provide residents with the same information available to our elected representatives and that would ensure public comment before action was taken.
This was not an easy task to say the least. We’ve had lively discussions along the way, but we’ve actually produced a Berkeley Sunshine Ordinance. Now, we want you to see it and comment on it so that when we take it to the City Council, your voices will have been heard and considered.
The Daily Planet has agreed to post our ordinance on its website (www.berkeleydailyplanet.com) so that you can read every word. The Sunshine Ordinance Group will host a public meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 9, at the Church of the Cross, 1744 University Ave., on the second floor (elevator is available), from 7-9:30 p.m. to explain the Ordinance and to hear your thoughts about it. This is your chance to weigh in on the fundamental issue facing Berkeley today—government by the people and for the people.
Residents have never had such an important chance to mold their future and the direction of this city. Please come.
Terry Francke is a member of Californians Aware. Shirley Dean is a former mayor of Berkeley.