Monday, April 21, 2008

Berkeley's Sunshine Law:
8 Years in the Making

I picked up a copy of the Berkeley Daily Planet weekend edition on Saturday on my way to the Pacific Film Archive to catch a screening of a restored uncut print of "Burn!," starring Marlon Brando, which I'd never seen. Two thumbs up on the film!

The Berkeley Daily Planet had a front-page article about the latest machinations to get a sunshine ordinance enacted, and, frankly, I was shocked the city of Berkeley, with all its progressive politicians and open government advocates, didn't already have a sunshine law on the books. From the article:
Despite requests from citizens to postpone the public hearing on the Berkeley city attorney’s draft sunshine ordinance—designed to provide citizens with greater access to local government—the City Council Agenda Committee refrained from rescheduling it.

The hearing will be held Tuesday [April 22] at the City Council Chambers, 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

Julie Sinai, chief of staff to Mayor Tom Bates, told the Planet Wednesday that although the mayor had not supported the postponement of the public hearing, he had agreed to hold off the first reading of an ordinance until June 10.

Sinai said that Bates had refused to delay the hearing since the council had been discussing the ordinance for a number of years.

The city has been working on a sunshine ordinance since 2001, when at the request of Councilmember Kriss Worthington, the City Council asked Kamlarz and then-City Clerk Sherry Kelly to look into improving the city’s sunshine policies, including the adoption of an ordinance.
On first blush, it seems a very long time has transpired since the city first considered such a law, but I get the distinct sense that sunshine advocates are diligently working to produce the best sunshine law feasible:
Bates’ decision to hold the public hearing next week met with protests from a citizens’ group—comprised of representatives from the League of Women Voters, SuperBOLD (Berkeleyans Organizing for Library Defense) and other community members—who have been meeting for almost a year at the League office to review former City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque’s 21-page draft ordinance.

In a letter to the mayor on March 31, the four workshop panelists requested a 90-day extension on the hearing.

“We have been working on an alternate draft since June,” said Gardner. “We are almost close to being done and we need a little bit more time than Tuesday. The sunshine ordinance is fundamentally important for citizens. With the ordinance, the city is taking open government one step further than the two state laws — the Brown Act and the Public Records Request Act — which address it.”
So why would Mayor Bates be in such a hurry to pass an imperfect, possibly very week, sunshine law that doesn't have the support of open government campaigners? The newspaper reports:
“It seems clear why Mayor Bates wants to force through a weak ordinance,” said Doug Buckwald, who attended Monday’s meeting. “He wants to put it in his campaign literature under his accomplishments for his upcoming mayoral election.”
Oh, that old problem of a politician worrying about his reelection campaign, so he attempts to ramrod his city council into passing flawed ordinances, is playing a role in this drama and that is unfortunate. As a veteran of San Francisco's sunshine battles, I say Berkeley should take a few more months to craft a law the advocates are behind. Let's see what happens at Tuesday's city council hearing.

Click here to read the 12-page draft sunshine ordinance.

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