Sunshine Week, meant to draw attention to the need for open government, couldn’t have come at a better time.

fix san diego opinion

In light of a handful of controversial developments around the city, San Diego’s transparency advocates have an especially strong case for sweeping reform.

On Tuesday, Californians Aware joined City Councilman David Alvarez and Councilwoman Marti Emerald to propose expanding some open-government measures and adding them to the November ballot.

The initial proposal called for public access to records of city contractors, and would have created a high bar for withholding such documents. It also required a regular public review of city regulations that denied public access to documents or meetings.

READ MORE: Pro Tips on Keeping SD Transparent

That version was unanimously forwarded by a Council committee to the full Council, where it should have been docketed for a vote. Instead, it was dubbed an “information only item” meaning no action was allowed. That goes against one of the Council’s own policies: “Those proposals approved or forwarded to the full Council by the Committee will be brought to the City Council for action.”

The first “information only hearing” was continued because the Council majority said it didn’t have time to read the city attorney’s report, which came out only hours before the hearing.

At the second City Council meeting, the committee’s chairwoman made a motion to request that the City Attorney prepare an analysis of the potential overlap between California Prop 42 on the June ballot and the proposed ballot measure, and report back to her committee. The problem with that request: The full Council had received an explanation from CalAware at the meeting that there was no substantive overlap. Still, the vote was 7-2 in support of the continuance, with Alvarez and Emerald opposed.

Since then, several issues have spurred us to broaden the ballot measure proposal even further.

The collapse of an expensive but unproductive effort by a special nonprofit committee charged with organizing a centennial celebration for Balboa Park was marked by the committee’s officials insisting their records were not subject to the Public Records Act. Although a wave of public criticism prompted them to relent, the controversy prompted an addition to the proposal: Records of any work done for the city by contractors or other entities would be subject to access by city officials and, thus, the public.

Meanwhile, an abrupt announcement by interim mayor Todd Gloria that all city emails over one year old would soon be destroyed (new Mayor Kevin Faulconer canceled that regulation just this week) prompted a new provision that requires preservation of all city records less than two years old — as required by state law.

Another addition would require that the email records of any communication involving city business by municipal employees, elected officials or agents, be filed on or copied to city servers. This comes as response to the practice of using private email accounts for official city business.

Yes, these recent incidents were resolved pretty quickly — but that doesn’t negate the need to add preventative rules to the City Charter. New city leadership could roll back transparency policies if they’re not bolstered by rules requiring a public vote to change them.

Those of us pushing for transparency believe that if the public doesn’t want the paper trail of public accountability to vanish in a year, or stay hidden in the private files of a city contractor or be channeled out of sight in officials’ private emails, San Diegans need charter language that says so.

Terry Francke is general counsel for Californians Aware and Donna Frye is president of Californians Aware. Their commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

Catherine Green was formerly the deputy editor at Voice of San Diego. She handled daily operations while helping to plan new long-term projects.

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