Freedom of Information: Sunshine experiment in Palo Alto

Posting e-mails from council members on the city's Web site
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The Palo Alto City Council is conducting a unique experiment in its efforts to comply with the Ralph M. Brown Act, which requires government bodies to conduct business in a public way.

Palo Alto now posts e-mails from council members on the city's Web site (www.cityofpaloalto.org/council), providing easy access to all with Internet capabilities. The e-mails were first posted online following a 2003 settlement of a Brown Act lawsuit against the city of Palo Alto by two local newspapers — Palo Alto Weekly and The San Jose Mercury News.

Eight private e-mails were in question, disclosing the votes of a closed city council session, and while the city never admitted guilt in vioutf8g the Brown Act, language in the settlement established the practice of posting council e-mails on the Web site and making them available in council agenda packets prior to meetings.

Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, questions the merits of the system.

"Some people would look at this and think it is a giant and serial violation of the Brown Act — but I wouldn't necessarily say that," Scheer told the Guardian, noting that the prohibition on serial meetings bans such an approach. But he said that this is an interesting experiment, as long as council members don't deliberate by e-mail. But assistant city manager Emily Harrison told us the messages avoid Brown Act violations by sticking to basic questions about agenda items, which the public can scrutinize.

The city of San Francisco has no such system in place, and e-mails to and from the Board of Supervisors is available only through direct request. Frank Darby, the city's Sunshine Ordinance Task Force administrator, said that the city had never looked into putting one in place.

"We are not required to post e-mails [under the Sunshine Ordinance]," Darby said. However, he added, the city "constantly monitors" itself to ensure that it is in accordance with the Sunshine law. "There may be some people who disagree and feel that maybe we should put every e-mail online — but currently the Sunshine Ordinance does not require that e-mails be made available online."