With the return of Daylight Saving Time, I want to highlight the value of Sunshine Week, which begins Sunday, March 10, and continues through Saturday, March 16.
Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know.
While democracy can be the most open form of government, that doesn’t guarnatee that it will be.
In the midst of the state’s budget problems, the governor has often recommended suspending several open government requirements, including an important section of the California Public Records Act.
We can say citizens have a right to know how their tax money is being used and what the government is doing to their liberty, but transparency is not automatic.
Examples of the disputes and arguments about freedom of the press and right to know abound throughout our history up to the present.
Just last week, Robert Woodward, of Watergate Papers fame, was in the middle of a tete-à-tete over the origin of the initial sequestration proposals.
This debate quickly began to take on the tone of trying to intimidate or threaten the media. It will pass, but there will be partisans on both sides arguing that the truth was obscured and hidden.
Just several months ago, during the election season, partisans of both sides wanted the press to correct and grade statements made by the opposition party’s candidates.
While these examples seem remote and perhaps beyond our local issues or concerns, I can offer several examples of when these sunshine laws have affected us.
First, as part of the Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed budget, he recommends suspending the provison of the California Public Records Act which requires agencies to assist the public with their records’ requests.
The CPRA allows you to directly request and receive information from state or local agencies.
One of the more important provisions for citizens first making a request is the requirement that public agencies help them shape the question and identify specifically what information is being sought.
Under the guise of a reduced budget, the governor may supsend this provision. So, our public servants are no longer required to help the public.
And here are some local examples of how sunshine laws have benefited the Hill. On page 8, you can read about the recently accepted 2012 Idyllwild Fire Protection District audit. Only a few years ago, the Town Crier learned through CPRA requests that the IFPD had done no audits for five years.
As the audits were completed, many substantive questions about the department’s finances and assets were raised. Fortunately, the current commission has been addressing these concerns.
Another example of trying to limit your access to an agency which could affect you was the county’s initial position that the recently created Historic Preservation District’s board meetings were not subject to the open government provisions of the Brown Act.
This unofficial opinon has been reversed. So the new board, which will influence local downtown development, must act in the open.
What about the fact that the two local County Service Area Advisory Committees’ meetings are suspended for months, perhaps longer? They are essentially dormant but the county didn’t suspend collection of their parcel fees from taxpayers.
Sunshine laws and their provisions may sound opaque, dull and frivolous, but they are essential and necessary for a democracy.