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All public officials say they are in favor of greater government transparency. The reason is simple: Whether we are talking about campaign finance and lobbying laws, community budgeting or police body camera videos, the public believes they have a right to the whole truth about government decision-making — as they should. But talk is cheap, and it is important that candidates have a proven track record of transparency and a plan to continue moving the ball forward.
My default position has always been to be as transparent as possible when serving the public. That’s why I worked so hard as chair of San Diego’s Ethics Commission to increase campaign disclosures and overhaul lobbying restrictions. It’s why I took pride in my work on the San Diego Police Department Use of Force Task Force, where we made recommendations for more transparency from the Police Department and closer collaboration between neighborhoods and police officers. If you are on the right side of the law (and the right side of the public interest), you have nothing to hide. That’s why, when I become the city’s head lawyer, I will lean in to transparency.
Immediately upon taking office, I will issue a public written policy on the criteria the office will use to determine what legal opinions are withheld because of the potential harm public release could do to the city and taxpayers as long as doing so does not violate the attorney-client privilege. If we withhold an opinion, we will identify the reasons for it so that we can also be held accountable. If time reduces the potential harm to the city, we will revisit releasing a previously withheld opinion.
I will consistently issue – and make public – legal opinions to the City Council, mayor and other city officials when doing so won’t compromise the city’s (and taxpayers’) position. Providing more legal opinions to the public will increase transparency and accountability by giving San Diegans an understanding of the information city officials use to make their decisions.
Traditionally, the office withholds such opinions from the public because of their potential effect on ongoing or potential litigation and negotiation strategy. However, I think these exemptions are overused.
In addition, I want to tap into the wealth of talent and passion that our residents, researchers, professors, community and business leaders, elected officials and veterans have to offer. I will welcome briefs from interested parties when the city attorney’s office evaluates legal issues.
Much like appellate courts accept amicus briefs – filings from people or groups who aren’t directly involved in the case but who have a stake in its outcome – the city attorney’s office will accept legal analyses by interested parties and experts in the field. In maintaining our commitment to transparency, we will publicly release any amicus briefs we receive with the legal opinion we issue. As a result, the public will know what we considered and can hold us accountable if we fail to acknowledge a potentially significant legal issue. I strongly believe this will improve the legal analysis done by the city attorney’s office, and furthers my goal of making sure the city receives the best legal advice possible. It also encourages public input in the decision-making process and takes advantage of San Diego’s biggest strength: our people.
It’s time to change the way business is done in this city. It’s time to trust our people, engage in public business publicly and ensure that we do our part to shine a light on city government.
Gil Cabrera, a candidate for city attorney, is principal of The Cabrera Firm and a former chair of the San Diego Ethics Commission.