By San Diego City Councilman David Alvarez.
As stated in the preamble to the Brown Act, our state’s open government law: “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”
In the last few weeks, the City of San Diego has experienced two majorfailures in providing the public with open and transparent government.
First, the Balboa Park Celebration Inc. committee was given city tax dollars to put together a 2015 centennial celebration. They received $450,000 in 2011 and another $2.3 million in 2013 to stage the event, but there is nothing to celebrate. The committee has nothing to show for all the money they spent and is closing its doors and leaving behind a big mess. Worse,when originally asked by the public and media to provide records, they argued they did not have to because they were a private organization. The arrogance of this response was not lost on the public, and litigation was threatened to gain access. The committee finally began providing some records, but only after the threat of litigation.
The second open government failure happened on February 27, when the interim mayor, with no public notice or discussion, initiated an administrative regulation that would automatically delete city emails older than one year. I immediately called for a public hearing and have issued a memo to the mayor stating that my council office will not adhere to this new regulation and will not agree to delete emails. Moreover, respected open government advocates have pointed out that this regulation violates state law and have threatened litigation if the regulation is not rescinded.
In both instances, the public was never informed about what was going on and their only recourse was to threaten litigation.
Sunshine Week 2014 runs from March 16 through March 22 and is a “national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.” While an annual discussion helps highlight these issues, the public deserves open government every day. They have a right to know what their government is doing, a right to be heard and the right of access to government information.
Last November, in partnership with Californians Aware, an open government advocacy non-profit, I proposed amendments to our City Charter that would have made San Diego a leader in open government. It would have allowed the voting public, not the government or its agencies, to decide how open their government should be.
This ballot measure would have:
- Restored public trust because the City would have been required to provide a reason to the public, based on facts and evidence, if access were denied.
- Provided the public with the opportunity to participate in a review of City policies and regulations that restrict public access.
- Ensured that the public right of access did not change based on who is in office.
- Established the City’s commitment to providing online, machine-readable open data.
According to Californians Aware, this ballot measure would have also helped reduce litigation because “Litigation is most likely if access to information or meetings is denied arbitrarily, without any explanation or justification… It is this needless exclusion of the public that these amendments are intended to end, and there should be no litigation if the City makes a genuine effort to show why denial of access is necessary to protect the public interest.”
Unfortunately, despite a unanimous vote of a Council committee to support the measure moving forward, the proposal was docketed at City Council as an “information only item” and referred back to the committee.
The public has a right to expect that their rights of access to city meetings and documents are respected and are not denied, waived or ignored. I am committed to increasing public access to information and ensuring the public’s right to know what their city government is doing and why, not just during Sunshine Week, but every day of the year.
For more information about Sunshine Week, visit http://sunshineweek.rcfp.org/ .