What Riverside County and San Bernardino County Public Entities Should Do To Promote Open Government
April 18, 2011 Leave a comment
I have worked for three California cities: The City of Santa Clara when I was in law school, the City of San Bernardino as a Deputy City Attorney and as the Assistant City Attorney for the City of Redlands. Each City was different: Santa Clara is a full-service charter law Northern California city (including its own electric utility) with an in-house City Attorney’s Office. San Bernardino is a full-service charter law Southern California City with an elected city attorney. Redlands is a full-service general law city with an in-house City Attorney’s Office. Since I have started my own firm, I have seen California’s good government laws from a different perspective. Some cities use the California Public Records Act as a shield, instead of fulfilling the transparency requirements of the Act. Some cities see the Public Records Act as burden because of the rare cases of alleged abuse.
Based on my more than a decade experience in municipal law, I make the following recommendations to Inland Empire cities, towns, counties, special districts, school districts, and water districts:
1. Have an open government or specifically a California Public Records Act section on your website.
2. Archive your minutes, agendas and agenda reports online in an easily searched database (good) or make the files available to search engine robots (better).
3. Post the things that most people care about online such as employee salaries, pension information, agreements, Fair Political Practices Commission Form 700s. If anything needs to be redacted, or can be redacted under the California Public Records Act, it can be done. Posting this information online will both provide transparency to the public and keep staff from having to respond to different requests for the same information.
4. Let the public know how to make California Public Records Act requests on your website, and train staff regarding their obligations under the Act. Provide an online and printable form for records.
Today, I searched the City of Riverside’s website for “Public Records Act.” What were the top results? This verbiage on Council agendas: “SPEAKER CARDS–If you wish to address the City Council please complete and submit a speaker card to the City Clerk before the scheduled meeting time. Speaker cards can be found at the east entrance to the City Council Chamber and City Hall lobby. Speaker cards will be accepted until the agenda item is called. In accordance with the Public Records Act, any information you provide on this form is available to the public.” Here, they are using the Public Records Act as a club: They are warning that if you put information on a speaker card for a City Council meeting, it is a public record.
Cities need to stop making the process so adversarial. Yes, Public Records Act requests take time and money. However, with out residents, most cities and other local governments would be out of business. Elected officials need to realize that keeping residents happy is in their best interest, and making Public Records Act requests is in the best interest of their entities.
Copyright 2011 Michael Reiter, Attorney at Law
The information you obtain at this blog is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. No attorney-client relationship is established by reading or commenting on this blog. You should consult an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation.