Public offers input on sunshine, campaign finance ordinances
About 50 people gathered at the Alameda Free Library on Saturday to have their say on a committee-created sunshine ordinance intended to make city government more open.
The draft ordinance, which has to be completed by the city’s Sunshine Task Force and which could be sent to the City Council for its consideration in November, reiterates open meeting and public document rules already codified in state law and would seek to enhance the public’s access to the city’s documents and meetings.
“I hope that moving forward, you will take ownership of this as much as we have,” task force member and City Council candidate Jeff Mitchell said. “There’s going to be trade-offs, there’s going be things that are not going happen.”
Mitchell said he hopes to send the ordinance directly to the council and that he believes the city attorney’s office may attempt to modify the ordinance or offer a competing one. Senior Assistant City Attorney Donna Mooney, who attended the workshop, said there’s nothing in the works, though she said her office will look at any ordinance the task force provides.
The draft ordinance would require more notice for public meetings and faster responses to requests for public documents, and would require the city to make video or audio tapes of closed session meetings and an index of city records that lays out which documents are public and which are not. Communications with members of official bodies would also be filed and readily available to the public.
The ordinance would also require the city to keep e-mails for two years. And it would require staff reports to be available for each item on a public body’s agenda.
Mitchell and others have recently questioned the city’s policy of destroying e-mails after 30 days, something city officials have said they do because they don’t have the storage space to retain them. Mitchell said that policy is illegal.
And others at Saturday’s forum questioned the lack of staff reports attached to council agenda items. City Manager communications listed on City Council agendas, for example, have lacked staff reports.
The ordinance would also establish a commission to oversee implementation of the ordinance and hear complaints from people who think it hasn’t been followed. Willful failure to uphold the ordinance would be considered official misconduct.
Participants in Saturday’s workshop offered a host of suggestions for making city business more accessible to the public. One oft-cited suggestion was to shorten council meetings, which routinely run into the wee hours of the morning.
“If have to speak to an issue I’m there until 2 a.m. Everyone else has gone to bed, you should be in bed. No one hears you speak. And these are not trivial issues,” Honora Murphy said.
Participants said they’d also like to see better access to materials and meetings online, access to city documents in other languages, broader notification about proposed building projects. But some also questioned how to balance a desire for more information with the resources the city has to provide that information.
“None of these systems exist in a vacuum. You have to think about who’s going to do this. How much priority should this be given? How many people does it take to do all this stuff?” Darcy Morrison asked.
Participants in the meeting also offered their input on a campaign finance ordinance the city attorney’s office has drafted, which the council is expected to consider in January. That ordinance would limit campaign contributions to $250 per donor and post donor lists on the city’s website a week before an election.
Brandon Kline, a board member for Common Cause, one of two speakers at Saturday’s workshop, said the city’s ordinance should focus on disclosure of contributions, since the city would have limited power to regulate contributions. He suggested the task force look at campaign finance ordinances in Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Cruz, though Mooney said at the first two of those had been subject to litigation.
Richard Hausman asked whether the city could consider requiring candidates to give back or donate unspent money from prior campaigns. Mitchell also asked if the city could put any controls on the amount of money a candidate can spend to finance their own campaign.
In addition to Kline, Terry Francke of Californians Aware offered an overview of the state’s Brown Act, which governs records and meeting access, and he talked about sunshine ordinances in other cities. He congratulated Alameda’s City Council for starting the process for creating an ordinance here.
“I believe that you have an advantageous situation here in that first of all, the whole process was launched by the council,” Francke said. “It’s not as if other cities in the areas around you have crumbled under the burden of having to bear this. It’s all doable.”
A number of candidates for public office attended the forum, including City Council candidates Rob Bonta, Tracy Jensen, Jean Sweeney and Lena Tam, who called for creation of the task force; mayoral candidate Marie Gilmore; and school board candidate Mike McMahon.