Letting the Sunshine In After Eight Years

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday April 01, 2010 - 12:58:00 PM
Peter Houts

The great pitcher and philosopher Satchel Paige (may he rest in peace) used to say “Don’t look back—something might be gaining on you.” That’s advice I’ve always liked, but once in a while looking back can’t be avoided. Last Saturday Peter and Mary, old and dear friends from Ann Arbor in the 60s, who’ve been in central Pennsylvania even longer than we’ve been in Berkeley, unexpectedly came to town, and we met them at the Farmers Market for a lavish Berkeley breakfast of Blue Bottle coffee and crepes. 

They’ve been living in the country on a small farm all these years, so they were interested in what our local farmers had brought to town this week. As we toured the aisle, we encountered an eager citizen with a clipboard, soliciting signatures for the freshly minted Berkeley Sunshine Ordinance initiative. Suddenly I remembered that on one of their previous visits, when they stayed with us, Peter had created the poster opposite as a thank you gift, since I was then working on trying to get an ordinance enacted. Folks, the workshop the poster advertised was in September of 2002! 

Time flies when you’re having fun. Has it really been almost 8 years, or even more, since Berkeleyans first tried to get a little sunshine into City Hall? No better evidence is needed of the lethargy which afflicts our city government. No wonder citizens have had to take the law into their own hands so many times recently with initiatives and referendums—representative government in Berkeley is increasingly dysfunctional. Perhaps if the sunshine ordinance passes citizens will be able to figure out what’s gone wrong in the past eight years. 

Thinking about the past inevitably reminded me that it’s been seven years today that Mike and I, with help from many dedicated Berkeleyans, launched another experiment in democracy, leaping naively into the whirlpool world of newspaper publishing, soon to become a vortex which would swallow many print publications, eventually including ours. In the Berkeley Daily Planet’s online archives, I checked out what I wrote way back then about why we dived into this incipient maelstrom. 

It was the usual high-minded sentiments: “The Truth Will Set You Free Blah Blah Blah.” Do we really still believe all that stuff? Yes. Do we still think print papers are the way to get there? Maybe. 

Coincidentally, a reader has contributed a commentary for this issue, published below, which suggests that too much sunshine might be a bad thing. That’s a curious sentiment coming from a Berkeleyan, particularly since he further suggests that the Sunshine Ordinance is suspect because it seems to have been drafted by chronic malcontents.  

Well, of course it was. If you believe that here in Berkeley we’re living in The Best of All Possible Worlds, why would you want change? Many would agree that the three questions highlighted in the poster still haven’t been answered eight years later. But why should we care? 

The old Russians used to say that “if our little father the Tsar only knew what was happening, he wouldn’t allow it” when anything went wrong. It’s the belief of sunshine advocates that one reason citizens make bad decisions is that they don’t have all the facts at their disposal. That’s where sunshine laws and places to publish the results make a difference. 

In recent years the majority of the elected city councilmembers have voted for a number of misbegotten laws which were stopped by citizen action. (That’s lower case citizen action, not the old Berkeley Citizens Action which has lapsed into slumber except when it’s time to endorse pre-approved candidates.) These include the builder-backed attempt to gut Berkeley’s Landmark Preservation Ordinance and the push to re-do downtown Berkeley according to UC Berkeley’s desires.  

On the other hand, Berkeley’s Police Review Commission has been hamstrung and hog-tied. The Planet, even when fully staffed by both experienced reporters and eager interns, has never in 7 years been able to get accurate crime information on a regular basis from whatever Public Information Officer happened to be in charge of keeping the facts under wraps. Perhaps the Sunshine Ordinance will change that. 

Some who oppose the Sunshine Ordinance will probably claim, with our correspondent today, that things are the way they are because the majority of citizens like them that way. We can leave the “it’s a republic, not a democracy!” discussion to whatever Goldwaterites are alive and well and living in Berkeley, but under either form of governmental organization (they’re not mutually exclusive, by the way) the majority can sometimes be wrong.  

Seeing Peter and Mary reminded me of the olden days back in Ann Arbor, when we were all “prematurely right” in 1964 about our country’s growing entanglement in Vietnam. Then, as now, the opinion of the majority was widely touted as being conclusive. The press was mostly against us, though I remember with gratitude the early involvement of John Knight, whose family owned one of the Detroit papers, who used his publisher’s column to endorse us noisy minorities who were launching the anti-war movement before it was fashionable. 

Recent instances of minorities being prematurely right include those who suspected last summer that UC Berkeley’s plan for a fancy new gym for 450 student athletes was a boondoggle (as shown by an amazing expose in the Chronicle this week). And now the world is starting to wake up to what’s going on in Israel.  

Until recently, the only way for Americans to find out that public opinion in Israel was not monolithic was to read the foreign press, European and Israeli, online. Most of the American press was intimidated into silence by the likes of AIPAC.  

But the prematurely right critics of Israel’s current government, once seen in only a few courageous publications, have now been joined by cautious editorial writers in the mainstream press and even by UC Berkeley’s own ASUC, not in recent years a hotbed of radicalism. Many Americans have not been aware of the growing and vocal minority of Israelis who are not afraid to speak up about their government’s misdeeds, but word is getting out.  

A friend who was raised in Israel but is now a U.S. citizen got back last week from a trip to visit his mother who is still there. He was in Israel during Vice-President Biden’s visit, which was marred by the government’s announcement of a new construction project in East Jerusalem. 

He’s always told Berkeley friends about what he learns from reading Ha’aretz in Hebrew, which he says contains critical details left out of the paper’s English version, but he didn’t have a strong sense of the growing strength of the movement for justice toward Palestinians. He brought glowing reports of the splendid anti-government demonstrations he’d participated in (“ Three thousand people in East Jerusalem! I saw all of my old friends from school days at the demos!”) and of hard-hitting critiques in local newspapers of just how those in power were going astray.  

He even attended a presentation of a new film about Rachel Corrie accompanied by a moving discussion by her parents. It was perhaps the one that got San Francisco’s Jewish Film Festival in trouble with its funders (including U.C. Regent Warren Hellman)—more freely shown in Israel than it has been here. Israel, warts and all, has always had a vigorous free press and a willingness to engage in open discussion of important issues, and that’s what will eventually save the country if anything can.  

In the brave new world of online everything, with print papers dropping like flies, citizen journalism is ever more necessary. If Berkeley’s Sunshine Ordinance gets on the ballot and is passed by the voters in November, citizens will be under an even greater obligation to use its provisions to find out the truth and publicize it. We hope to continue to provide an easy way for you do that. But first, of course, you have to sign those petitions in the next couple of weeks. 

A great new tool for disseminating information is the little “share” icon now on every page of the online Planet. You can click on it to pass on a piece that you like by email, Facebook or Twitter, or even print it out on paper for computer-illiterate friends. And don’t forget to try the Contents and Full Text buttons on the front page, to create personalized presentations of all the news we print in one place. Between the Planet and the Sunshine Ordinance, soon there will be no excuse for anyone in Berkeley not to know what’s happening. Pass it on.