Sunshine Ordinance should be modernized

Alex Gronke thinks that the Mayor and City Council should post their calendars online for public viewing. I’d settle for being able to find out what they’re considering on Tuesday.

Legistar was down all afternoon yesterday, and is still down. I cannot view on-line next week’s Council agenda and even with direct links I cannot access any files from clerkwebsvr1. This happens more often than you would think, though I can’t remember the last time it went on for more than a day. Oakland’s Sunshine Ordinance (PDF!) requires that agendas (though not related legislative files) be available on-line, although there is an exemption for software or hardware failure.

The City Council, Redevelopment Agency, Board of Port Commissioners, Public Ethics Commission, and any of their standing committees shall provide notice before any regular meeting byposting a copy of the agenda on-line at the local body’s website no later than ten (10) days before the date of the meeting. Notwithstanding Section 2.20.080(D), the failure to timely post a copy of the agenda online because of software or hardware failure, as defined in Section 2.20.030, shall not constitute a defect in the notice for a regular meeting, if the local body complies with all other posting and noticing requirements.

So as long as agendas are posted on that silly bulletin board outside City Hall, the Council has fulfilled their public notice requirements.

I am unable to access and read any legislative files for what the Council will be discussing at their meeting on Tuesday, including the enforcement report for the smoking ban. (My understanding of the report is that, in contrast to previous assertions by proponents of the smoking ban, Oakland police officers are currently being used to respond to smoking complaints and would continue to be used for this purpose should the new legislation pass.) I’d like to read it. I could go to City Hall and read it there, but should Oaklanders accept that as constituting meaningful public access? Is it okay for our government to say that information about what they are doing is only available to you if you don’t work a 9 to 5 job and have the luxury of being able to visit City Hall during weekday daytime hours?

Before the internet, these rules made sense. They were the best we could do. In 1997, when we adopted the Sunshine ordinance, the internet was still not the way most people accessed information. Now things have changed. A survey (PDF!) by the PEW Internet and American Life Project found that in August 2006, 53% of respondents reported they had used the internet to find news or information about politics, up from 35% in March 2000. Another report from PEW shows that internet penetration among adult Americans has reached 73%.

There is a larger problem here than just one or two days (so far) without agendas and legislative files available online. The City’s website is hopelessly outdated, and it is not uncommon to find departmental webpages that haven’t been updated in five years. Last week, I was able to read Public Ethics Commission’s agenda online, but unable to access any of the attached reports. Try going to the Planning Commission’s page and looking for minutes from the recent Zoning Update Committee meetings. Our government’s neglectful approach to on-line information suggests that they care little about meaningful public access. Server problems that go on for days are not tolerated in the private sector. They certainly should not be tolerated when it comes to giving residents access to government information. Since Oakland City Hall cannot be relied on to provide this information in a reliable fashion without being obligated to do so, perhaps it is time for citizens to demand updates to the Sunshine Ordinance that will force them to.


Update: Legistar is now finally back online. That does not excuse the outage, though.

8 thoughts on “Sunshine Ordinance should be modernized

  1. Michal Migurski

    There’s a ton to say on this topic … I’m curious what you think would constitute an acceptable sunshine policy with regard to the internet. I know that the city has an internal records management system that peeks out here & there when it’s required, but I’d like to see non-private parts of the whole thing made available online in one shot. Although the technology exists to do this now, the political will does not, and will not without a major shift in attitude on the part of the city. I imagine that what’s required is an equivalent to the Open House Project report on congressional information (http://www.theopenhouseproject.com/the-open-house-project-report/) focused at the city level.

  2. V Smoothe Post author

    Michal –

    You’re right that there’s a ton to say, and I will not be able to adequately respond to your question in a comment. I will try to write a post with more detail over the weekend or next week, as time permits. I did try to pitch technology updates as a policy initiative in service of transparency and open government to a staffer last spring and was basically laughed at in response.

  3. Naomi Schiff

    I completely agree that the difficulty of accessing the city’s public information is a de facto violation of the sunshine ordinance. I had trouble with the infernal legistar last week, too. I did manage to get a copy of the report I sought, but only from another kind citizen, even though I did leave a message at city clerk’s offices, asking them to send me a pdf via email.

    In fact, the Oak to Ninth referendum insanity is in large part due to exactly this failing; the legislation was not updated on the city clerk’s website nor in their offices. The operative document seemed to live elsewhere on staffers’ computers, and was never made available to the public in a timely fashion. Now it is costing various people big bucks to sort it out, a sorry waste of energy and money when you consider that there are known ways of handling public info on the web.

  4. shirley enomoto

    in emeryville we have not had minutes of city council meetings (or disbursements from the general fund) available online since april 17, 2007. i get one excuse after another, the latest being that they were searchng for a new i.t. i’m researching now to see if emeryville has passed a sunshine ordinance, but like most other ordinances in the municipal code, ordinances are not enforced.

    can someone direct me to the state or federal document that cites exactly what the responsibility of the city clerk is in providing minutes? searching the state government code is difficult if i don’t have a specific act or section number.

    thank you
    shirley enomoto
    emeryville

  5. John Klein

    Hi Shirley,
    Minutes don’t necessarily need to be available online (unless it is the policy of the City of Emeryville that City documents are to be accessible online). However, paper documents must be available.

    Go to this web site and it will tell you most of what you need to know: http://www.brownact.org.

    It is state law and all local governments must comply. If they don’t have documents and information online, then they will have it in paper form. You don’t need an IT manager for that. Just go to the City Clerk’s Office and make a written request for what you want. Beyond this….it’s a long story.

  6. Tony

    Shirley,

    John is right. The City Clerk will provide the minutes (when it’s ready) if you request it. You need to make a trip to city hall in person for that.

    Some background info: there is a new IT Manager now. The city will totally revamp the website in the next few months so all this will be easier to access.