PUBLIC FORUM LAW -- Californians Aware is collaborating with a new investigative journalism website in Orange County to help residents understand their rights to open government and free expression and exercise them more effectively and confidently, announces General Counsel Terry Francke in Voice of OC.

The maxim "You can't
fight city hall" can be taken to mean a variety of things, but its
core message is to discourage, implying,
so don't even
try
.

That message is obviously wrong, of course. People win struggles
with city halls literally—and government institutions generally—all the time through lawsuits, ballot initiatives, recalls, or
state or federal legislation. The exercise of classic First
Amendment collective rights such as picketing, gathering and
presenting signed petitions, or showing up to protest at public
meetings still have political force as well.


But having to "fight" government practices and policies in
reaction often means that the smarter approach—monitoring
government decisions as they develop, gathering facts showing
government performance, publicizing what's being learned and
citizens' comment about it—has broken down. This cluster of
watchdog functions has for two centuries been the defining civic
role of newspapers.

But newspapers are not what they used to be,
and will never be again.

People need no longer rely on them in searching for most goods,
services and opportunities traditionally marketed in classified
advertising—Internet sites do that. In most cases, people need
not even see a newspaper to read most or all of its most costly,
time-sensitive, precious product—locally gathered news stories
published and updated on a free Internet website.


The consequences of these and other market forces for what
newspapers do and how they do it has been devastating: bureau
closings; general staff cutbacks; early buyouts for many of the
most experienced and valuable reporters, editors and columnists;
and consolidation of editing functions and beat assignments among
region-wide networks of nominally independent but chain-owned
newspapers.

But the power of the Internet that has done so much to erode the
exclusive news and information channel of newspapers has also made
the watchdog functions noted above far more available to anyone
with a connection to the Web.


Many of the most central local government agencies maintain
websites, for example, where they post their public meeting
agendas
in advance and minutes
afterward. Some—and this is likely to be the majority trend—link their posted agendas and minutes to
reports
and other documents that will be or have been
considered at a meeting, and even provide streaming video of
current and past meetings.


Much if not most information about what government has done, is
doing or plans to do is not showcased in meetings of its official
bodies, of course. But not only can e-mail be used to request
particular paper or electronic documents under the California
Public Records Act, for example, but the movement forward under
both
state
and federal
legislation is to post certain accountability-related documents on
the internet routinely and proactively.


The Internet has thus made the first two watchdog functions—monitoring government decisions as they develop and gathering facts
showing government performance—available to all, at little or no
cost and far greater convenience.

But although few people have either the time, concentration or
motivation to pursue more than one or two issues by steadily
watching and questioning government, the same technology has
enabled those who do have such training, temperament and experience— journalists largely, but not exclusively—to create Internet
platforms for the other two watchdog functions as well: publicizing
what's being learned and citizens' comment about it.


That is where organizations like Voice of OC and similar
nonprofit public affairs news and comment forums play a role:
supplementing the watchdog functions of local newspapers whose
commercial base has so eroded.

But Voice of OC is going one step farther by performing a
watchdog function no commercial media have even attempted: steadily
educating its community about the transparency rights of
individuals under the law and how, for example, to understand and
use the Brown Act and the California Public Records Act with
effectiveness and confidence.


In this capacity Californians
Aware
, which I serve as general counsel, is partnering with
Voice of OC to answer your questions, offer suggestions and help
cut through much of the needless mystery that can frustrate your
efforts to control "city hall."

Fighting government is not the priority. Controlling it is. As
stated in the Brown Act's preamble: "The people insist on remaining
informed so that they may retain control over the
instruments they have created."