For the most part, the goings on at the Oakland Public Ethics Commission (PEC) tend to not get a whole lot of attention. Occasionally, they’ll get some press when they’ve got something about campaign financing on the agenda (although a lot of those issues pass by unnoticed too, like District 4 City Council candidate Jill Broadhurst’s retroactive request for public campaign financing (PDF), which she had previously said she could not take “in good conscience”).
But most of what fills PEC agendas is not related to the thrilling world of public campaign financing. Mostly they just deal with ethics complaints. And they’ve got no shortage of complaints to deal with — check out their pending list (PDF) to get an idea of how many of those suckers come in.
I don’t know if it’s some great tragedy that all these complaints don’t get a whole lot of attention. I usually get DVDs of the PEC meetings after the fact, and most of the time I find them beyond mind numbing. One problem is that the PEC is often powerless to do anything about complaints that may be legitimate. I mean, they might forward an issue to the FPPC or the District Attorney, but at that point, the Commission is basically just an elaborate middleman. The other problem is that a lot of the complaints are about extreme technicalities and nitpicky nonsense that people file to just screw with each other.
Although many of the complaints that come to the PEC seem to be motivated by some petty desire to “get” whoever the complainant is angry with at the moment, the Commission itself doesn’t generally take the bait. Even though the origin of many (not all) ethics complaints seems to involve wanting to punish political enemies for wrongs, whether real or perceived, the Commission admirably tends to focus on fixing things rather than just being punitive.
One issue the PEC deals with frequently in complaints is public records requests.
The California Public Records Act
You see, in California we have this thing called the California Public Records Act (CPRA). Basically, it says that the public has the right to review government documents relating to the public’s business. What is and what is not a “public record” is sometimes disputed (the government tends to have a more narrow interpretation than the media and the public), but good primers are available here and here (PDF).
So here’s how it’s supposed to work. If you decide you want some a record, you fill out a public records request and submit it to the City. You can do this easily by filling out on online records request form. You tell them what you want, with as much detail as possible. Then, within 10 days, they either give you the records you asked for (they’re allowed to charge you for the cost of photocopies) or they tell you that they need an extra two weeks or they tell you they’re not going to provide what you asked for at all and explain why they’re allowed to not give them to you.
The law says that they’re required to help you get what you need. Like, if you fill out your request wrong, they’re supposed to help you figure out how to do it properly in order to get the information you’re looking for. If they decide not to provide the records, they’re supposed to explain why whatever you asked for is not considered a public record under the CPRA.
Sometimes it works like that. A lot of times it doesn’t. Sometimes they say records aren’t covered under the CPRA when they are. Sometimes they say the records you requested don’t exist when you know for a fact that they do. Sometimes they just tell you that they don’t have time to produce the records you asked for because they’re short staffed and that maybe they’ll have time to get to it in a month or two. And when the City of Oakland fails to produce public records as required by the law, your recourse is to file a complaint with the Public Ethics Commission.
Access to public records in Oakland
The PEC spends a lot of time talking about these record-related complaints. Back in October, they decided that the ongoing issue of access to public records merited broader attention than simply considering each case individually as they come up. In December, the Commission approved an outline for a series of hearings (PDF) aimed at gaining a better understanding of the records access problem and figuring out a way to improve it.
You can watch a video of that discussion below.
They’re going to have at least three hearings (possibly four), which will be broken down by topic.
The first hearing will be devoted to getting testimony from members of the public about their experience trying to get public records:
Staff will prepare in advance on the hearing a written briefing on applicable law and any relevant internal protocols pertaining to public record requests. Commission staff recommends that the majority of hearing time be devoted to receiving comments from members of the public regarding their experience with obtaining records from the City. To that end, Commission staff will invite members of the public who routinely seek records from the City, as well as people who have in the past expressed difficulty in obtaining City records. At the Committee’s suggestion, staff will invite comments from persons who have filed complaints with the Commission in recent years on public records issues.
For the second hearing, they’ll hear from the people who have to produce the records.
Commission staff recommends that the second hearing be devoted to receiving comments from those within the City who are responsible for coordinating responses to public records requests. Representatives from the Offices of the City Clerk and City Attorney, as well as from agency and department information officers, would be logical participants. Based on the information obtained from the first hearing, the Commission will be able to suggest in advance specific questions for these representatives to address.
For the third hearing, they’ll take a step back and look at how other cities deal with these problems.
Commission staff recommends a third hearing to receive suggestions from various “open government” organizations and to review “best practices” from other local agencies to improve Oakland’s ability to respond to public records requests.
Then, based on all they’ve learned, they’ll start working on crafting specific recommendations, whether administrative or legislative, to improve the process.
So I think this is just great! Too often, the City’s approach to deal with complicated problems is totally haphazard and unproductive. It’s encouraging to see the PEC breaking down the issue into parts and structuring their consideration of the matter in such a way that they can use each hearing to build on what was learned at the last one.
First hearing is on February 2nd
The first of these hearings is going to take place on Wednesday, February 2nd in City Council Chambers at 7 PM. I’m not sure if they’ve scheduled the other ones yet. I saw a little flyer about them the other day, and quickly made a note “2/2/11 7PM CCC,” and then just handed it back, since I had assumed (foolishly, in retrospect) that I would be able to get the flyer online. It’s possible that it is there. But I couldn’t find it.
Anyway. If you have had problems accessing public records in the past, the Ethics Commission wants to hear from you. So mark the date on your calendar!