Sadly the sun is setting on the printed Berkeley Daily Planet, but happily the sun could rise on open government in Berkeley. After three years of work, many disagreements and agreements, the Citizen’s Sunshine Review Committee completed its work in February 2010. With the urging of Mayor Bates and the City Council and the lead of The League of Women Voters, the Committee was formed with some 30 plus Berkeley residents and others participating and went to work.
As the work progressed, the city staff and City Council seemed uninterested in our efforts, even though they encouraged the formation of the committee. Because of this, the Citizen’s committee has filed the “Intent to Circulate an Initiative” to put the Sunshine Ordinance on the November 2010 ballot—this after many starts and stops involving rewrites.
When the Committee submitted a draft to the city in November 2008, the staff’s reaction was to produce a financial impact report that was so outlandishly high, we think that they hoped the public would reject the Ordinance out of hand. In fact, the Committee had to file an RFI (Request for Information) to get some of the details of the staff report. Some of the information requested was withheld, using the favorite excuse provided to the city in State Gov. Code 5226. Upon examination of the information provided by the city, the Committee estimates the actual cost of the Ordinance to be a fraction of the staff’s numbers. The fact is that over the long run the Ordinance would actually save the city money.
In a research paper published by Adrianna C. Rodriguez (a graduate student) and Dr. Laurence B. Alexander (Professor of Journalism) at the University of Florida, they write, “All 50 States and the District of Columbia have enacted open meeting laws.” They go on to write “However, while State law may provide for penalties to be levied against public officials who disregard open meeting laws, violations persist and there is little evidence that penalties are enforced.” You can google “Punishment for Shade: Analysis of Penalties and Remedies for Violations of Open Meetings Laws Across the Country” for the complete paper. An eye opener if you do.
Berkeley is thought of as having the most open city government in the country, yet violations of the Brown Act and the California Records Act are common place; that is why we need a sunshine ordinance.
• Decisions are being made without full knowledge of what information they are based on.
• Public comment rules change without notice. Issues cannot be fully discussed in one or two minutes.
• Meeting procedures need to be codified so everyone knows how to act and what to expect.
• City records are difficult to get, with long delays common.
• Record requests (FRI) are routinely denied using State Gov. Code 6225. This code gives the city the excuse to not provide the requested record based on the city’s determination that the release of the information would not be in the best interest of the city.
• The city is in the dark ages when it comes to keeping and producing records. Today’s technology needs to be used; instead the city is years behind.
• There is no enforcement of broken rules and ordinance violations in the city.
• The citizens’ of Berkeley must take the city to Superior Court using their time and money to enforce any violations that occur.
The Citizen’s Sunshine Ordinance attempts to find solutions to these problems. Collecting signatures should begin on or about March 15, 2010. If you believe in open government (sunshine), please volunteer to collect signatures or sign the petition when it is circulated. The deadline for turning in enough signatures to get the Ordinance on the November 2010 ballot is early May 2010.
If you would like to help or want more information, you can go to our website at berkeleysunshine.org, or e-mail Dean Metzger at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dean Metzger is a Berkeley resident.