A Message to Sacramento City Council: Democracy Dies in the Darkness

Will the Sacramento City Council make a real commitment to open and transparent government this spring or will it fudge on the issue?  The City Council is facing such a choice because of new and proposed state laws that are systematically gutting the two key laws that keep local government open and transparent to their citizens: the Brown Act, California’s open-meeting law, and the Public Records Act.

Here’s what’s happened: Last year, the Legislature and Governor Brown, in a cost-cutting move, decided to cut off all reimbursements of the costs local government incurs in complying with the Brown Act.   But the state constitution requires the state to reimburse local governments for their costs of complying with state mandates like the Brown Act.  So our state leaders simply passed a law relieving local governments of the burden of complying with key provisions of the Brown Act.  Most local governments, including the City of Sacramento,  responded by pledging to “voluntarily” comply with the suspended law.

Now, the Governor wants to take the suspension further.  In his proposed state budget, he’s asking the Legislature to now invalidate large portions of the California Public Records Act, the law which enables the public and the media to compel local government to cough up records on request.  If the Legislature goes along, local governments in California will be pretty much free to operate in darkness and thumb their noses at pesky citizens and inquisitive reporters who file requests for public records that require a lick of effort on the part of local government to compile.

City of Bell redux anyone?

I imagine that most local governments will respond to the suspension of the Public Record Act’s mandates as they did to suspension of the Brown Act: they will issue pious pledges to “voluntarily” comply with the Records Act notwithstanding its suspension.

That’s simply not good enough.  Not nearly good enough.

It is too easy for local government officials to abandon their public pledges of compliance when things get uncomfortable for them.  After suspension of the Brown Act mandates, San Diego County was challenged for replacing its top administrator without prior public notice.  A county attorney responded to the challenge by pointing out that there was no legal basis for challenging the county’s action because the Brown Act’s provisions were “no longer operative.” Any local government attorney worth his salt would take the same posture.  If a local government, including one that has pledged compliance, balks at coughing up a public record that is requested, the requestor will no longer have recourse to the courts to compel compliance: they’ll simply have no legal case to plead.  The doors of the courthouse will be slammed in their face.

There is a very easy way for local governments to fix this problem – if local elected officials are honestly committed to democratic governance.  They can simply adopt by local ordinance the suspended portions of the Brown Act and the Public Records Act and provide their citizens the legal standing to enforce the rules by court action.

March 10th marks the beginning of “Sunshine Week,” 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.  Sunshine Week is the ideal time for local government leaders to step up and introduce legislation to preserve California’s open government laws in their own jurisdictions.  Members of the Sacramento City Council: Are you listening?

 

Craig Powell is an attorney, businessman and community activist.  He serves as President of Eye on Sacramento.