Berkeley talks seriously about adopting a Sunshine ordinance
EDITORIAL At long last the city of Berkeley is talking seriously about adopting a sunshine ordinance. That's the good news, and it's overdue: Councilmember Kris Worthington asked city attorney Manuela Albuquerque to start working on this six years ago.
The bad news is that Albuquerque has drafted a law that's full of holes.
The biggest problem with the proposed ordinance is its lack of effective enforcement. Although the law sets (some) standards for open records and open meetings, any complaints about secrecy would go to the city manager. That won't work: if we've learned one thing in covering politics for more than 40 years, it's that city officials can't police themselves on sunshine issues. What happens if the city manager is the biggest offender? What happens if the city manager doesn't want to take on the mayor or the council members? What if the city manager winds up protecting city employees (who may be vioutf8g the ordinance with impunity)?
The ordinance needs a few other things - for example, mandatory time for public comment at City Council meetings ought to be written into the law instead of being left as a council rule that can change any time. There ought to be clear language stating that all requests for information are to be treated as public records requests, even if they aren't in writing and didn't come through the City Manager's Office.
But if this ordinance is going to make any difference, it needs real enforcement - and that means having an outside, independent panel or commission that can handle complaints. In San Francisco, the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force does that job - and the city still lacks decent enforcement. If Berkeley wants to adopt a real landmark ordinance, it should follow what Connecticut has done and create an open records commission with the authority to order city departments, agencies, and officials to release documents and open up meetings.
Worthington is a strong supporter of an independent enforcement body and has been struggling to get Mayor Tom Bates and Albuquerque to go along.
At this point, Worthington and the sunshine advocates would be better off letting Terry Franke of Californians Aware and Mark Schlosberg of the American Civil Liberties Union - both of whom have offered their time and expertise - simply write another draft. It should include a new sunshine commission, with teeth. Worthington says that might require a charter amendment and thus a vote of the people, and he's prepared to push the entire package onto the ballot if necessary.
That threat alone ought to get Bates and Albuquerque in line - and if it doesn't, the voters of Berkeley should have the final say. *