Candidates for public office in California and elsewhere commonly make promises they either know they will not be able to keep or are too inexperienced to know no one could keep. But in doing so they play on just enough of the right medley of public anxieties, resentments and wistful myths that the melody sustains them while no one holds them to the lyrics.
What if a candidate were modest enough to say simply, “Here’s what I’ve accomplished; here’s what I’ll try to do; and here’s what I absolutely will (and will not) do”? In case there are any of that caliber around, the following is a 10-point Sunshine Pledge responsive to that third commitment, which, if adopted, should merit the vote of anyone of any party—at least against any competitor who won’t make such a commitment. What it tells the public seeking some distinguishing mark in a sea of untested faces is that this candidate, if elected, won’t be pulling up the ladder but instead lowering others, welcoming the community aboard.
1. I will be second to none in supporting open government and free expression on matters of public concern.
2. I will not consent to withholding governmental information from the public unless convinced—by publicly available legal analysis supported by specific statute or case authority—that the information may be lawfully withheld and that failing to do so would more likely than not seriously injure an identifiable public or private interest. I will always insist on hearing—publicly—what is the worst case possible resulting from public disclosure.
3. I will not consent to holding meetings that exclude public attendance unless convinced— by publicly available legal analysis supported by specific statute or case authority—that excluding the public is lawfully permitted and that failing to do so would more likely than not seriously injure an identifiable public or private interest. I will always insist on hearing—publicly—what is the worst case possible resulting from public attendance.
4. In attending meetings of the body I have been elected to, I will use no electronic communications technology until the means have been installed to record and store all voice messages for subsequent public review and to display in real time and in the same room, all text messages or other traffic on the device I am using.
5. I will resist any attempt to prevent particular persons from voicing particular views, or to shut down public communication generally without excellent reason and readily available equivalent opportunities, whether in general public forums such as the streets, the plazas and the parks or in speech-dedicated forums such as government meetings.
6. As tempting as private briefings on pending meeting topics may be, I will decline to accept them from staff on any routine basis, and will instead be prepared to “ask the dumb questions” publicly, in the open meeting, for the benefit of the public’s understanding.
7. I will do whatever I can to see that officers and employees of my agency understand the laws protecting whistleblowers and that a whistleblower hotline is maintained to receive and process reports of improper governmental activity, protecting the identity of the reporting party to the maximum extent permitted by law.
8. I will fully support citizens’ efforts to draft, publicize, circulate and enact a sunshine ordinance that makes my agency more accommodating to public access, information and participation than under the minimum standards in the Brown Act and the California Public Records Act.
9. I will insist that the following financial data pertaining to the relevant officers and employees of my agency be posted on the agency’s website and updated within five days of any changes, and until this disclosure practice is adopted I will make my own data available on a personal website I will launch and maintain at my own expense:
- a summary of all compensation and benefits in all forms;
- the Form 700 Statement of Economic Interests;
- any campaign contributions received, with all information required to be disclosed by the Political Reform Act; and
- all agency credit card statements and/or annotated expense reimbursement claims.
10. I will do what I can to see that the immediacy, economy, convenience and power of all forms of electronic communication are devoted to the inclusion and involvement of the people in their own government, and never to their exclusion and alienation.
Several of these items apply to those seeking office on a multi-member council, board or commission, but most are relevant to most public posts subject to election. Notice that other than item 9, these cost the candidate absolutely nothing to adopt, and if elected, nothing to live up to other than some occasional resistance or inertia from fellow officers, staff or legal advisors. In fact, a candidate’s refusal to take this pledge sends a pretty clear signal that he or she is already committed in the opposite direction—just waiting to clamber aboard and hoist that ladder.
But those who do take this pledge deserve one consideration: the right to be wrong and the chance to learn through failure. Considering the kind of transparency they are committed to champion, they above all others should be given the benefit of the doubt for at least a longer than average honeymoon, because the risk they are taking is that if they misfire, everyone will soon know all about it—whereas those committed to unobservable government can cover their tracks as standard practice.
If they take the Sunshine Pledge, they deserve an edge. They’re not saying, “Trust me.” They’re saying, “Watch me.”