Let the Sun Shine in Berkeley Too

By Becky O'Malley
Tuesday March 15, 2011 - 10:31:00 PM

This week is Sunshine Week all over the United States. What, you may ask, is Sunshine Week?

It’s sponsored by American Society of Newspaper Editors, joined by the National Freedom of Information Coalition, California’s First Amendment Coalition and many other groups. Briefly summarizing, from the NFAC web page: “Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public's right to know.”

For a complete overview, there’s a website which explains it all.

Here in Berkeley, we’re proud to report that our own Dean Metzger, the indefatigable advocate for Berkeley’s Sunshine Initiative, now scheduled for the November 2012 ballot, has been cited in the Sacramento Bee, one of the participating papers, as one of six outstanding “citizen watchdogs” in California. And Dean has not been working alone—with him on the Sunshine Initiative committee there’s an unlikely assortment of Berkeleyans who seldom agree on everything, but are united in their belief that all of us deserve to know much more about what our city government is up to. 

They’ve been working for a long, long time on this project. I went to some of the early organizing meetings, perhaps eight years ago or even more, but I haven’t participated since then, beyond reading the email tree accounts of what’s been happening, because I’ve been too busy with the Planet. 

For a while the committee hoped to get the backing of city officials, both hired and elected, for the Berkeley City Council to pass a decent sunshine ordinance, but that was a vain quest. What they got instead was a tin fiddle: a few toothless ordinance changes lacking any meaningful enforcement mechanisms, which were easily passed unanimously at the last council meeting on the consent calendar. 

(For those who aren’t familiar with that old-fashioned metaphor: a tin fiddle is a cheap imitation fiddle that looks like a real wooden one but sounds dreadful when you play it.) 

Who among the councilmembers would object to something with the impressive title of “Open Government Ordinance” which does essentially nothing? What the council voted for is not a sunshine ordinance, or any kind of real open government ordinance, by any stretch of the imagination. 

But between now and November 2012 (which seems far away but will be here before we know it) there’s need for a lot of public discussion of the initiative language which will appear on the ballot. The citizen drafters attempted to take the best features of the several sunshine ordinances which have been enacted in California, including several in our fellow Bay Area cities of Oakland and San Francisco. They studied the performance record of ordinances in other jurisdictions, eliminated what hasn’t worked right and added what was left out elsewhere. 

It’s a cinch that local officials plan to claim that their Tin Fiddle Open Government Ordinance does the job. It doesn’t. 

But the unwary might be fooled. 

Case in point: It seems that the League of Women Voters chapter for Berkeley, Albany and Emeryville (LWVBAE) has already been fooled. The LWVBAE newsletter reprinted unquestioningly the Berkeley city staff’s inflated estimates of what enforcing a sunshine ordinance could cost the city of Berkeley. When the Sunshine Committee wrote to the LWVBAE challenging these calculations, the newsletter editor refused to print their letter, saying that “barring evidence to the contrary, we will accept the City's work product. They are public employees and we trust that they do their jobs.” Unh-hunh. 

A copy of the Sunshine Ordinance which the initiative will offer the voters can be found online at berkeleysunshine.org. There’s also a summary of its key points, as well as links to all sorts of other interesting information about genuine open government. 

On the Sunshine Committee’s list-serv there’s been discussion of setting up some sort of online forum where information about the initiative could be presented in detail. That’s a good idea, but we’d also like to offer the Planet’s online space as a forum for public discussion both pro and con. We’re strong believers in Justice Brandeis’s famous idea that sunshine is the best disinfectant, and we think that a vigorous debate beforehand will help people decide how they should vote a year from November. 

Last week, when we received an interesting analysis of the just-released Berkeley census data, we decided to experiment with reviving our old Berkeley Free Press blog site, which we started before we took over the Planet. We hoped that it would give readers a chance to express their opinions on controversial topics more spontaneously and more interactively than the Planet’s inherited newspaper format permits. 

In honor of Sunshine Week, we feature in this issue a couple of commentaries which highlight specific controversial aspects of the public’s right to know. One of them deals with the relationship between the First Amendment and “hate speech”, and the other examines privacy considerations raised by proposals for using proprietary social media like Facebook and Twitter as vehicles for dispensing governmental information. Each is followed by a link to the Berkeley Free Press blog site, and we urge readers to go to the site and express their opinions. 

Coincidentally, or perhaps not, I was surprised last night to receive a reporter’s story that a meeting billed in an email as “Community Engagement Meeting Around Library Lawsuit ” had been cancelled when unexpected community members showed up, since both the reporter and I had been sent invitations. I was even more surprised to learn that key officials who were present had moved to the home of a Berkeley city councilmember for a private meeting after sending the public home. 

It’s possible for reasonable citizens to disagree on whether two branch libraries should be demolished and rebuilt or rehabilitated. It’s possible to differ about whether a lawsuit is the right way to settle that disagreement. 

But the discussion of such topics, especially when public servants are involved, should be open and transparent, not conducted behind closed doors in private homes. That’s exactly what Sunshine Week is all about. Thanks to all involved for providing such a clear illustration of why Berkeley desperately needs a Sunshine Ordinance.