One, proposed by the local watchdog group Patterson Residents for Ethics, Safety and Service, focuses on holding City Council members accountable for keeping public information public.
Another, by Councilwoman Annette Smith, includes a proposal to allow residents to access agendas and archives via a computer at City Hall, rather than using staff time and city resources to track them down.
As advocates for public information, we at the Irrigator find aspects of both ideas appealing and hope the city can move forward soon on a “sunshine ordinance.”
We wholeheartedly embrace the idea of creating an open-government commission to review public information requests, as they have been successful not only in larger cities, such as Berkeley and Benicia, but also in smaller, rural communities, such as Gilroy.
Such bodies, when they include both council members and community members at large, can provide greater accountability to ensure that all public information requests see the light of day.
At the same time, it’s important to recognize that the city of Patterson has a limited budget and may not be able to devote the same amount of staff time as larger Bay Area communities to open government policies.
If the council moves forward with a sunshine ordinance — and we believe it should — the best course would be for city staff members to take a look at laws in other cities and see which aspects would apply best in the city of Patterson.
Of course, any sunshine ordinance will need approval by the City Council, and therein is the rub. What is the chance that a group of council members, particularly some who have been criticized for a lack of openness in the past, will create legislation to hold their own feet to the fire?
An ordinance must have teeth to be of any use to constituents. Residents have a right, for instance, to receive timely updates about how much money the city spends on litigation, particularly when it’s used for public relations work or for an individual council member’s lawsuit against the county. They also have a right to know how much money individual council members are spending on social functions, such as Mayors Working Group activities. An open-government ordinance should require the full disclosure of details on such fiscal matters.
It’s commendable that Smith and community members are thinking about making government more open. We hope for legislation that is effective in making all public information available to the public, not just the details that are most convenient for city officials.