City should provide easier access to information, critics say
A group of city officials and citizens last week pushed forward their intent to bring a Sunshine Ordinance to Berkeley and, in doing so, open up the city’s information airways.
Sunshine commonly refers to legislation that, under the Brown Act and the California Public Records Act, protects a citizen’s right to access public information and outlines the guidelines requiring local legislators to have open government meetings and public agendas.
The Berkeley Citizens Sunshine Coalition, meeting last Thursday evening, said they want a measure implemented in Berkeley similar to those passed in Oakland, San Francisco and Contra Costa County.
“The coalition is concerned now with identifying where the problems are and adding a sense of urgency,” said Peter Sesame, a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, who helped initiatives pass in San Francisco and Oakland.
There have been similar grassroots attempts in Berkeley to free up information, but Sesame said other attempts came primarily from citizens groups, while this effort is headed by city officials.
City councilmembers Mim Hawley and Kriss Worthington attended the meeting as did city commissioners John McBride, Lauren Moret and LA Wood.
On the issue of obtaining public records, Wood expressed difficulty in getting the city to turn over documents, namely when he tried to obtain a report on arsenic and treated wood from the city’s Parks Department.
He believes he should not, as he eventually did, have to file a Public Records Request to obtain the information. “Everyone should have equal access (to public records), and that is not the case,” he said.
Worthington also weighed in on the city’s information process. He pointed out that people can watch City Council meetings on television, but viewers do not know the content of what is being discussed because city reports are not widely available.
The written reports are available at the public library, but the coalition agreed that the community would be better served if the reports were available on the Internet as well. Berkeley resident Judith Scherr called the reports “wonderful information for citizens who want to participate and understand their local government.”
Some city officials, though, believe that the rights of the citizens of Berkeley are sufficiently protected by the Brown Act and the California Public Records Act, and that a Sunshine Ordinance would be redundant.
Manuela Albuquerque, city attorney since 1985, does not believe that a Sunshine Ordinance is necessary for Berkeley. She believes that what is stipulated in Contra Costa’s Sunshine Ordinance is, for the most part, already practiced in Berkeley.