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A Cost-free Way to Support CalAware

Amazon.com customers now have a way to support Californians Aware at no extra cost: when they send in their orders through Amazon.Smile. As a limited-time offer—until midnight Sunday, March 31—the donation (one per customer) will be a flat $5.00. After that the donation for each purchase will revert to the standard .5%. CalAware

Sunshine Week Final: A Free Guide for California Watchdogs

By Kelly Aviles, CalAware Vice President for Open Government Compliance During Sunshine Week, we raise awareness of issues related to transparency in government.  We also push for changes that can help our local agencies be more open year round.   In order to continue the push for transparency throughout the year and assist the public in monitoring their local agencies to ensure compliance, CalAware has developed a new Community Watchdog Guide.  The Guide is completely free and available for download here. It was developed by CalAware’s General Counsel Terry Francke in a user-friendly question and answer format.   Citizens, journalists, bloggers, government officials, and anyone else interested in getting quick answers to questions regarding the rights of the public and the responsibilities of our local agencies will greatly benefit from the Guide. The Guide covers the most frequently questioned areas of our open government laws: Meetings of Local Government Bodies and the Brown Act; Access to Government Files and the Public Records Act; and Meetings and Records of Local Court Administration. “The CalAware Community Watchdog Guide” is a great pocket reference guide to the most frequently asked questions and the most frequently encountered situations. It’s meant to allow those in the trenches get answers to their questions in real time, when they need the information the most.” While the Guide is intended as a brief introduction into issues affecting the public, you can obtain more information from any of the more detailed publications from CalAware, including the new Journalism Law Guide, The CalAware Guide to Public Records and Private Information in California, and The CalAware Guide to Open Meetings in California.  All three publications provide case law and details on all aspects of our open government laws.

Sunshine Week Extra: New Journalism Law Guide

The CalAware Guide to Journalism Law in California, 2nd edition, released last fall as an ebook, is now available in a pocket paperback edition. “CalAware’s j-law guides have always been the top of the arc for reporters and editors. The new guide is a pleasure to use, an agile resource,” says Tim Crews, editor and publisher of the Sacramento Valley Mirror and Vice President of Californians Aware. “We used it twice last week at school board meetings and were able to at least get the Brown Act violations spotlighted.” The 2nd edition been revised to discuss cases decided and legislation passed since 2007 plus new entries devoted to: recent limits on closed sessions and remedies to correct violations of the Brown Act; getting records of courthouse administration (not just cases); online access to court case records; texting and other uses of e-devices in the courtroom; libel and copyright cautions for using material from the Internet; covert audio and video recording for “sting” journalism; the latest escalations of anti-paparazzi penalties; warranted searches of journalists’ phone and e-records; warrantless searches of journalists’ smartphones, laptops and tablets; covering volatile protest demonstrations; and California and constitutional law protecting college as well as high school journalists. The 397-page indexed paperback pocket edition is available on Amazon.com at $24.95. Meanwhile the $19.95 ebook edition (at Amazon.com or in the iTunes store) links every mention of a case or code section to the full text online, as well as the leading Internet resources for using the federal Freedom of Information Act.  And like any other ebook, the format allows for contextual word searching, bookmarking and highlighting. Both editions also include recommended protests or statements to be used in the field when journalists’ […]

Sunshine Week Extra: Open Government in Charter?

Two members of the San Diego City Council, joined by Californians Aware, are proposing open government guarantees be added to the city charter, the first known such move in the state. Today Council Members David Alvarez and Marti Emerald called on the council to place the proposed measure on the November ballot for voter approval.  The initial proposal, made in mid-February by Alvarez and CalAware President Donna Frye (a former council member herself), called for public access to records of city contractors and required any withholding of public records not mandated by state or federal law be not only authorized by an exemption from the California Public Records Act but justified by substantial evidence of necessity to protect the public interest. That version was unanimously forwarded to the council by a policy committee, but stalled there when that committee’s chairwoman led a vote to send it back to committee after the city attorney said such a charter change could invite litigation. Since then controversial developments have led the authors to broaden the proposal even further.  The collapse of an expensive but unproductive effort by a special nonprofit committee charged with organizing a centennial celebration for the city’s historic Balboa Park was marked by the committee’s officials insisting that their records were not subject to the Public Records Act.  Although a wave of public criticism prompted them to relent and provide all records to the city, the issue led to an addition to the proposal making the records of any work done by the city by contractors or other entities subject to access by city officials and thus to the public. Also, an abrupt announcement by the interim mayor that all emails over one year old […]

Sunshine Week Extra: Rate Your Agencies’ Websites

In this era of demand for transparency of large, complex and powerful institutions, nothing a public agency does can serve that demand better, easier, quicker and more consistently than an information-rich, well designed website.  Yet too many observable today are little more than billboards—leaving the visitor to click around in search of some predictably sought public information, to say nothing of familiarization with the most responsible humans behind the pixels.  Agencies of a certain size and resources can provide a site with all kinds of whizbang tools and capabilities, but what should be the basics of largely static information that can be inexpensively provided and kept current, and how easy should it be to find those fundamentals? Without attempting to resolve that debate, CalAware offers one checklist to use in determining how well a government agency—particularly but not only a local agency—meets the most predictable desires of most visitors, however much its own desires to push certain information to the public are satisfied beyond these basics.  Our Public Agency Website Content and Usability Standards should be useful in comparing city, county, school or special district websites, for example.  Readers are welcome to suggest improvements to this yardstick as they wish via info@calaware.org, and they will be included in an updated set of standards. To use the standards, add one point if each blue or green item is present, then add (or subtract) a subjective point if a first time visitor would find it easier (or harder) to find the information, then at the end add points for extra usability features such as searchability and navigability. The fact of a 100-point scheme does not mean this is a test, and we’re confident that no existing site […]

Court: DA Filings in Criminal Cases Are Open to All

The California Court of Appeal has decided that  a convicted murderer on death row has the right to review charging documents filed by San Diego County prosecutors in capital cases over 16 years, since documents filed in court are public records unless specifically sealed, and since any processing burden for the district attorney’s office is offset by the importance of the issue pursued by this plaintiff: the risk that prosecutors showed racial selectivity in seeking the death penalty.  Details reported by Courthouse News Service.

City Sues for Records on PG&E Explosion Aftermath

How much in monetary penalties should Pacific Gas & Electric have to pay for its responsibility for the explosive gas pipeline leak that charred a residential area of San Bruno in 2010, killing six and injuring scores?  That issue is before an administrative law judge of the California Public Utilities Commission, and San Bruno thinks that the Commission’s top executive has been trying improperly to influence the judge’s decision.  The city filed repeated Public Records Act requests for telltale emails, but has been put off long and often enough that, as reported by Sam Singer in a Business Wire release for the city, it’s filed suit in San Francisco Superior Court to force the records’ disclosure.

Drought Discipline and Public Information

The California Public Records Act protects the use records of those—residents and businesses—who are customers of local governmental utilities like water districts and municipal utility districts. That makes it hard for the public to know for certain whether, and if so by how much, those users are consuming excessive water in the current drought—with three important exceptions. Government Code §6254.16 provides: Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to require the disclosure of the name, credit history, utility usage data, home address, or telephone number of utility customers of local agencies, except that disclosure of name, utility usage data, and the home address of utility customers of local agencies shall be made available upon request as follows: To an agent or authorized family member of the person to whom the information pertains. To an officer or employee of another governmental agency when necessary for the performance of its official duties. Upon court order or the request of a law enforcement agency relative to an ongoing investigation. Upon determination by the local agency that the utility customer who is the subject of the request has used utility services in a manner inconsistent with applicable local utility usage policies. Upon determination by the local agency that the utility customer who is the subject of the request is an elected or appointed official with authority to determine the utility usage policies of the local agency, provided that the home address of an appointed official shall not be disclosed without his or her consent. Upon determination by the local agency that the public interest in disclosure of the information clearly outweighs the public interest in nondisclosure. Subdivision (e) discourages those who set utility consumption policies, including drought rationing, from […]

Public Forum Law News Roundup 1/17/2014

FREE SPEECH CalAware-supported bill adds teeth to Brown Act protection for citizens’ right to comment at local government meetings OPEN GOVERNMENT CalAware-sponsored proposal would put charter amendment on San Diego’s June ballot requiring fact-based reasons for secrecy WHISTLEBLOWERS The Dreyfus Affair’s unsung whistleblower, whose fate set the pattern for leaks threatening a national security elite FREE PRESS Appeals court setting precedent for federal courts in California rules bloggers can’t be sued for libel without proof of fault OPEN MEETINGS Monterey Supervisors’ use of frequent “performance evaluation” closed sessions to direct policy moves will get D.A.’s scrutiny

Remembering Old Acquaintances—and New

Thank you, every one, who’s included Californians Aware on your holiday season public service gift list. Also, thank you in advance to others who have waited to this point to contribute. We have never needed your thoughtfulness more, and it counts fully as a tax-deductible charitable gift. If you can help us, you can send a check to Californians Aware at 2218 Homewood Way, Carmichael, CA 95608, or choose another contribution option at http://calaware.org/support/donation. Happy New Year! Terry Francke General Counsel