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Sunshine Task Force issues final draft of open government ordinance

Submitted by on 1, December 6, 2010 – 12:02 amNo Comment

Alameda’s Sunshine Task Force has issued the final draft of a proposed ordinance intended to throw the doors of City Hall open a little wider.

The sweeping, 32-page ordinance would require more notice for city meetings and would make a host of city documents, including final drafts of reports, correspondence with elected officials and law enforcement records, more easily accessible to the public; the ordinance would require the city to place much more information than it currently does online and to keep e-mails for two years instead of the current 30 days. It would also create a new open government commission to enforce the rules.

Under the draft ordinance, the city would be required to offer four weekdays’ notice of City Council meetings, for example, and 72 hours notice of special meetings, with some exceptions. It would also set stricter requirements for noticing and holding meetings that are closed to the public and more information about what happened in those sessions, which would also be recorded and eventually, made available to the public.

A date for City Council consideration has not been set.

The proposed ordinance would also eliminate city bodies’ ability to open new items of business after 11 p.m. and would allow for up to 15 minutes of public comment at the beginning of city meetings. City Council meetings and those conducted by the two redevelopment boards council members sit on routinely extend past that hour, with new items sometimes taken up well after midnight and public comment on non-agenda items not taken until the end of those meetings.

The ordinance would also require a quicker turnaround time on public record requests than state law now requires, and would reduce the cost of copies to a penny a page. State law requires public agencies to respond to public records requests within 10 days and to provide public documents after that, and the ordinance would require the documents to be provided within 10 days. The city now charges 10 cents a page for copies.

Willful failure to abide by the ordinance would be considered official misconduct.

Separately, the leadership of Californians Aware, a statewide public records and open meetings watchdog, has informed a half dozen interest groups representing cities, school districts and other public agencies that they plan to begin filing short-notice lawsuits to halt what they see as common violations of open meetings laws, the group announced late Friday.

The group said they intend to sue public bodies who fail to provide proper notice of closed-door-meetings to discuss pending litigation or property negotiations, who add items of business to posted agendas less than 72 hours before a meeting or who take action on compensation for employees not represented by a union behind closed doors. And they encouraged journalists and public agency watchdogs to let them know if they believe such a violation has occurred.

The group’s general counsel, Terry Francke, said they haven’t made any decisions yet regarding suits to be filed.

Californians Aware also recently challenged e-mail destruction policies in several Orange County cities. Those cities are destroying e-mails after a little as 30 days, they said; the nonprofit watchdog says they believe state law requires the e-mails to be saved for two years.

SunCal, the former master developer for Alameda Point, is also claiming in a lawsuit against the city that its policy of destroying e-mails after 30 days is illegal.

Meanwhile, the task force is set on Thursday to review a campaign finance reform ordinance drafted by City Attorney Teresa Highsmith. The proposed ordinance would cap individual campaign contributions at $250 per person or committee and would prohibit contributions from anyone doing business or seeking to do business with the city. Candidates failing to abide by the rules could face a misdemeanor charge that would exclude them from public office or a fine of up to $1,000 per violation. The ordinance was originally proposed in June.

The task force will meet at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Stafford Meeting Room of the Alameda Free Library, 1550 Oak Street.

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