Happy Sunshine Week!
That salutation likely means little to people who aren't journalists, government watchdogs or, say, San Diego City Councilmember Donna Frye, who, in 2003, along with colleague Toni Atkins, boycotted the City Council's closed-session meetings, protesting that decisions being made behind the shut doors should be open to public scrutiny. That problem was fixed in March 2004 by a new city law that says detailed descriptions of closed-session meetings, which are supposed to be limited to personnel and legal matters, would be made public.
On Monday, Frye and Mayor Jerry Sanders issued a co-written article in which they underscore a problem that pervades all levels of government, not just ours locally: "During the recent mayoral election," they wrote, "we both recognized that many of our city's problems were made worse by a culture of secrecy...."
And hence the point of Sunshine Week: Let's applaud successes by reporters and skeptical citizens in shining light on questionable government activities, but let's also gird ourselves for the fight to get at information kept out of reach. According to a "secrecy report card" put out last year by watchdog group Open the Government, the number of documents the federal government deemed classified in 2004-nearly 16 million-hit a new high, triple the number of documents kept secret in 1995. And, in the California First Amendment Coalition's March newsletter, CFAC Executive Director Peter Scheer points out that U.S. Justice Department lawyers, in a current court case, have argued that not only should individuals who leak classified information to the press be prosecuted, but so too should the reporter who receives that information.
Locally, things aren't so scary. We have a new mayor who, unlike his predecessor, isn't afraid to speak to reporters and who's made an earnest effort to get out and mingle with his constituents. Also, the city's in the process of overhauling its woefully inadequate records-keeping system, and sometime in August, the public will be able to go online and see who's contributed money to candidates running for local office.
But there's still more to be done. When asked what changes she'd like to see, Frye said the public should know who elected representatives meet with-developers, lobbyists, hired consultants-before a major issue comes before the City Council.
"Say, for example, we have a project before the council and I meet with three people about that particular project or issue," Frye said, "I would announce who I had met with prior to the vote."
Right now, the best way to find out who's asserting influence over elected officials is to request their calendars-something you should, ostensibly, have no problem getting, thanks to a 2004 ballot measure that clarified California public-records law. The thing is, now that they know a copy of their calendars must be handed over upon request, government officials can skirt the intent of the law by leaving certain information off their calendar.
Says Terry Francke, director of watchdog organization Californians Aware: "I don't have much doubt that in the past year or so when it has become clear that things like appointment calendars are subject to the Public Records Act, some people have reacted to that by saying, "Well, I'll keep my own calendar on my person.' The mayor of Santa Cruz has taken that position. She keeps a little black book that she uses and it doesn't belong to the city in any sense."
Next on the list, we were disappointed that City Attorney Mike Aguirre, who's been eager to share everything and anything with the public when it comes to his investigations of city wrongdoing, didn't get back to us when we inquired about his publicly announced intent to author a ballot measure to protect whistleblowers-an important initiative given the city's pension board threatened to have board member Diann Shipione arrested if she showed up at a meeting after she blew the whistle on questionable board actions.
We checked in with tenacious local-government eyeballer Mel Shapiro about how he's doing with the series of public-records requests he's filed regarding attorneys retained by City Council members and city employees and how much taxpayer money is footing those bills. One request Shapiro filed in December hasn't been ackowledged-public-records requests, by law, should be answered within 10 days. CityBeat inquired about Shapiro's records request with Fred Sainz, the mayor's spokesperson.
"With respect to Mel's request, he's right," Sainz responded, adding that he's asked Joanne SawyerKnoll, the mayor's ethics chief who was handling Shapiro's request, to provide him with a response.
And, not to nitpick, but the city of San Diego has on its website a list of who people should contact for records from a particular city department. The list, however, is outdated, listing at least 13 department heads who've either retired, moved on to other jobs, been indicted or asked to resign. Time to update that list, ladies and gentlemen.
Lastly, something we've bemoaned in the past is lack of access to law-enforcement records, most of which are publicly inaccessible due largely to efforts by powerful police and sheriff's unions. On his list of "California's Top 10 Secrecy Problems," Francke put "The Police State of Denial" at Nos. 5 and 6. "In California, information about particular peace officers... is uniquely off limits from citizen inquiry," he writes. And the law-enforcement sector as a whole "is the only domain in California government whose total operations are entirely secret by law."
Francke says Californians Aware has talked about pairing up with legislators to introduce a bill that would fix problems with the state public-records act, including law-enforcement issues.
"You have to keep running at these things every couple of years because, at some point, I think legislators are going to be less disposed to simply give the badged unions whatever they ask for."
To learn more about Sunshine Week and how you, too, can become a government watchdog, go to www.sun shineweek.org.