Just what is Sunshine Week?

It’s a time to celebrate, reflect on, and, most importantly, act on our right to open government. Sunshine Week is a time for us to focus on the necessity of government accountability to the public—and how we make sure we have it.

March was chosen for Sunshine Week to coincide with the birthday of James Madison, who said ”…a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Here in Oakland, we’re commemorating the tenth anniversary of the passage of our Sunshine Ordinance.

The League of Women Voters invites you to join us to for a discussion about Oakland’s Sunshine Ordinance with City Attorney John Russo and San Francisco Chronicle columnist Phil Matier on Thursday, March 15, at 7:30 PM in Hearing Room 1 at Oakland’s City Hall, 1 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza:

  • Why do we need a Sunshine Ordinance in Oakland?
  • How is it working?
  • What more needs to be done?

Why would you be interested in this? Well, read on…

Oakland Police Department Fails Public Records Audit

Californians have a right to access information concerning the conduct of the people’s business under the California Public Records Act. But exercising that right is another question, as a recent audit of police records shows.

Californians Aware, a Sacramento-based public interest organization conducted an audit of public access to law enforcement information last December. Auditors visited 216 agencies in 30 of California’s 58 counties, from San Diego to Siskiyou, including 184 police and sheriff’s departments and 32 California Highway Patrol area offices. The auditors asked for information expressly identified by law as available to the public: the police chief’s employment contract, the officers’ salary schedule, the most recent death in custody report, and the name, occupation, birth date, and sex of all persons arrested for robbery, burglary, or sexual assault during a two-week period, along with the date, time, and location of the arrest.

The auditor who visited the Oakland Police Department was directed to a third-floor records office where he waited in line for 45 minutes. He was then told that both oral and written requests should be submitted at the crime-analysis office on the top floor. This office was quiet, seemingly little visited by the public. The analyst was friendly but said the department simply could not handle such requests unless the person making the request worked for the City because of inadequate staffing. She said this had been the case for two years. More than an hour after entering the building the auditor had not found anyone to take a written request. [See the report by the Californians Aware auditor for Oakland.]

In March of 2005 the League of Women Voters of Oakland reported results of a records-request audit we had done. The average was 70 percent success when asking for a copy of or permission to see a specific public document. A group of students at Fremont High School duplicated a few of the same requests. Their success rate was 50 percent. Neither of these figures build the public’s confidence in their government.

The League of Women Voters, having crafted and nursed to life a Sunshine Ordinance in 1997, wonders what it takes to insure that public servants obey laws to serve the public. Education and training are always prime means to achieve the goal. In Oakland, the City Attorney’s office and Dan Purnell, the Executive Director of the Public Ethics Commission, spend a lot of time doing just that. But the results are unsatisfactory. Some critics say there is too much turnover in City staff. Others feel that serving the public is less than a top priority and that this attitude permeates City departments.

There are many City staff who do try hard to find records, but lack good indexing and records-keeping tools to do that job. Time is lost and money wasted when records cannot be found. Public trust in government shrivels and a wall of animosity rises, further complicating a testy relationship.

If we all work with the League and other organizations, such as Californians Aware, the California First Amendment Coalition, and the ACLU to educate people about their rights (not to mention how shaky some of those rights are now), it might encourage local governments to obey the California law and State Constitution.

The League of Women Voters is where hands-on work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. Join the League of Women Voters where leaders are actively engaged in effecting change at the local, state and national level.