Open government laws questioned at city hall

ENCINITAS — The city’s recent loss in a Superior Court open records case has some in the community questioning whether an ordinance specifying the parameters of access to documents should be in place at the local level.
As a result of the legal defeat and the court’s subsequent denial to grant the city’s appeal of the original decision, the City Council discussed the document review and release policies during a regular meeting July 20.
“Transparency is the foundation of an ethical government,” Councilwoman Teresa Barth said. “Local policies that go beyond the minimum requirements of the Brown Act and the Public Records Act help to strengthen public trust and confidence in their government. That is why I support a Sunshine Ordinance for the city of Encinitas.”
But Mayor James Bond said he was afraid open government laws have created an insurmountable administrative and financial burden on government agencies.
“Government is spending more and more time, more and more money and more and more resources chasing around Freedom of Information requests that can come from anybody,” he said during the meeting.
Bond added that draft versions of documents aren’t always complete or accurate and can cause confusion. Glenn Sabine, the city’s attorney who defended the open records request lawsuit, made a similar argument during court proceedings.
Councilman Jerome Stocks is on record supporting a “case-by-case” approach to disclosing documents that are not obvious under state law.
But some residents are suspect of the process of making city government transparent. “It’s incumbent on the council to set the standard,” said Sarah Fenton, who recently moved from Berkley, Calif. where a sunshine ordinance exists. “When you start leaving it up to the discretion of individual staff members on what to disclose and what not to disclose to the public you get into trouble and nobody really understands what the standard is.”
Barth agreed that the more the public knows the better. “A clearly established policy of open meetings, easy access to public records and accountability will increase the public’s trust and confidence in government,” Barth said.
According to ethics scholar Judy Nadler, a Senior Fellow at Santa Clara University, every state in the U.S. has some variety of law mandating that all government business be conducted in open meetings to which the public has access in order to protect transparency in government.
Nadler goes on to define transparency as the ability of citizens to “see through” the workings of government and “to know exactly what goes on when public officials transact public business,” she said.
However, not all government matters are subject to public scrutiny. Issues, such as real property negotiations and matters pertaining to pending litigation can be handled in so-called “closed sessions.”
Personnel issues are another area; one where privacy concerns may justify closed meetings. The Brown Act “provides for closed sessions regarding the appointment, employment, evaluation of performance, discipline or dismissal of a public employee.”
“Government that is not transparent is more prone to corruption and undue influence because there is no public oversight of decision making,” according to Nadler.
During a June 10 special session meeting, the council voted 4-1 (Barth opposing) not to pursue what is called a “sunshine ordinance.” Several members said the city has exceeded the requirements of the state’s open-government laws by putting records online, including campaign finance records.
“I proposed a citizen’s task force to work with staff to craft a sunshine ordinance,” Barth said. “My colleagues, while admitting to past problems, said a sunshine ordinance was not necessary. I disagree. Without a written policy it is too easy to ignore and abuse state open government laws.
In fact, Barth said technological advancements have made the need for such a law even more urgent. “I have often wondered how appropriate it is for council members to have their phones with them at meetings,” she said. “Should they be accessible via text messaging from a person who wants to influence their vote but not speak publicly?
“The right of the people to know what their government is doing is fundamental to democracy,” Barth said. “Not only do they have the right to know what decisions have been made, they also have the right to participate in making those decisions.”

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  1. W.C. Varones says:

    Stocks and Bond: "You have to let us run government by secret backroom deals because it’s too expensive to respond when people ask what we’re doing."

  2. Duhhhh says:

    "Bond added that draft versions of documents aren’t always complete or accurate and can cause confusion. Glenn Sabine, the city’s attorney who defended the open records request lawsuit, made a similar argument during court proceedings."

    Did it ever occur to Jim Bond and Glenn Sabine that we EXPECT for documents to be complete and accurate, and that is what staff is paid to do?

    Read more: Coast News Group – Open government laws questioned at city hall

  3. Real honest Gov says:

    Barth stated on May 18th that she new about vandalism occuring on the "Surfing Mdonna". On May 25th she claimed she didn’t and made a motion to add an emergency item to that evening’s meeting thus attempting to deprive the public the ability to know in advance about the discussion she wanted to have and in complete violation of the open government CA Brown Act.
    I’ve been waiting for one of you loudmouth’s to do or say something about it, but apparently your feigned outrage is reserved for people not Teresa Barth. It seems that even when she does wrong, you believe she can do no wrong…
    Watch the tapes for yourself and listen to the meeting on the 25th where the City Attorney try’s to tell her she can’t make a finding, but she lies and does it anyway!
    Great theater!

  4. What's Your Point? says:

    I don’t even understand what your point is Real Honest Gov.

    We are talking about back room deals that have resulted in the loss of millions of dollars when they are added up, spectacularly corrupt and inept performance by staff in the Planning Department, the endangerment of citizens through poor oversight of greenhouse projects converted to upzoned housing developments, illegal campaign contributions, quid pro quo, so what is your point again?

    Is whatever you are talking about the worst thing that you can say about Teresa Barth when there is the appearance of criminal behavior among staff and majority council members?

  5. Leucadia Blog says:

    RHG,
    Yeap, looked like Barth made a singular mistake on the surfing madonna. We’ve been pushing for less manipulation of the public process and we wrote up the madonna issue which was equal treatment of barth , see here:
    http://www.theleucadiablog.com/2011/06/art-emergency.html
    Gaspar also voted with Barth, but since she has not been calling for more open government I guess shes not a problem too?
    Barth is the only one that actively supported a sunshine ordinance. Stocks, bond, dalager, and houlihan have the distinction of being the first council to vote against even considering one.
    If the city had policies and practices that I’ve been suggesting, there would have been a way to have Barth’s and Gaspar’s actions officiall reviewed without a need to file another open government lawsuit. There are plenty of other open government law violations going on AND lots of cheap and easy ways to increase the transparency of city hall.
    On the flip-side Barth is the only council member to not keep much of their correspondence a secret. Why no mention of that?

  6. OpEncinitas says:

    Nice article. If the city were more open, fewer people would be asking for drafts because we would trust the info we get. But spending $35k plus the opposing attorney fees to lose a lawsuit trying to defend secrecy is a travesty and we should appreciate that Teresa didn’t support that.

  7. Leucadia Blog says:

    Be aware that when the city was asked for the "draft" the city was already hiding the final report. The public had good reason to suspect this and asked the city to prove it wasn’t complete by releasing the most current version. They didn’t want to admit that it was complete or let the public know about the contents of the report.
    The city is willing to spin and manipulate the public. A Sunshine ordinance would put an end to that BS.

  8. FIA Financial Burden says:

    The financial burden of fulfilling Freedom of Information Act requests that Bond mentions is incurred when they have to call staff back from the Pannikin to their desks in order to sanitize any files that citizens may be requesting.

    These files might include such things as "documents that aren’t complete or accurate," emails from developers to the Planning Department asking for special favors, reports and accounting documents that contain such exotic concepts as addition sums that are added correctly.

    All of this stuff is highly sensitive and must be hidden from the Encinitas public since we are known to become "confused" when confronted with the truth from these people.

    To implement such an extensive and far-reaching ass-covering operation does not come cheap–especially since more and more citizens are becoming aware of what is happening!

  9. outsider2ssss says:

    If the city’s documents were on line fewer requests would be filed. That would mean less information control for the council, so instead we have to pay those costs Jim Bond is worried about. Democracy comes with costs Jim.

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