Santa Clara County would become one of just a handful of California counties to adopt a "sunshine" law granting greater access to the inner workings of government, under a plan being introduced this week, reports Karen de Sa in the San Jose Mercury News.

"Although the county does some of its work in a very open way, I think there are other ways where people have been shortchanged," said board of supervisors President Dave Cortese, who is proposing that the county adopt its first "open government ordinance."

Cortese's early-stage proposal directing the county staff to study current practices and future possibilities for improved public access will be considered Tuesday by the full board. Among other things, Cortese would like to see county reports posted a week before public meetings, fewer last-minute memos and expanded video coverage of public hearings.

Supervisors already report travel and gifts -- and their meetings are streamed live on the Web and archived. But much of current practice is informal. Cortese argues that more can be done to achieve transparency -- above and beyond current mandates, the California Public Records Act and the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state's open-meeting law.

Cortese would also like to see a full inventory taken of how transparent county government is today, a vital task given the county's nearly $4 billion budget and oversight of "extremely critical systems that affect everyday residents" -- from juvenile justice to public health facilities and the collection of property taxes.

"What do we do now by law," Cortese asked, "and what should we be doing that we're not doing now?"

Should supervisors approve the request, Cortese will have a champion in County Executive Jeff Smith, who authored Contra Costa County's pioneering 1995 "better government ordinance" as a supervisor there.

"When the press and others were asking for information, they got very territorial and were not forthcoming, and I thought that was a bad approach," Smith said. "The ordinance was to set the stage for a different environment and a different culture -- one that set the stage for a transparent and open government."

At least eight local governments in California have "sunshine" laws on the books that go beyond what the state already requires in terms of advance-meeting notices and making internal records publicly available.

Most of the jurisdictions are located in the greater Bay Area. They all grant quicker, cheaper and simpler access to public records than would otherwise be made available. The list includes San Francisco, Contra Costa and San Bernardino counties and the cities of San Jose, Milpitas, Oakland, Berkeley, Benicia, Vallejo and Riverside.

Terry Francke, a longtime open-government advocate and general counsel for the nonprofit Californians Aware, praised Cortese's effort. But, he cautioned, the search for sunshine may take a long time. Berkeley's recently crafted ordinance, for example, came after 10 years and 24 draft ordinances. And it now faces a challenge from a citizen-driven ballot initiative that seeks even greater access than what city officials approved.

"I'd like to see every county -- and for that matter every city -- have one. But this tends to be slow going because the advantages and the merits of having a sunshine ordinance are more readily apparent to residents than to the government agencies that are being asked to adopt them," Francke said. "So it's not like a good government fad that just spreads like wildfire" among elected officials.

San Jose spent four years creating its sunshine laws; the latest version was passed by the City Council last year.

Francke said San Jose's ordinance is "noteworthy, but it has a disappointing hole in it," a provision restricting access to law enforcement records. In San Francisco and some other counties and cities with sunshine laws, that kind of access is easier.

In San Jose, access to police reports and law enforcement agency records "was fought long and hard and mightily resisted by the police department and District Attorney's Office -- and so that ended up rather limited," Francke said.

City spokesman Tom Manheim, who worked at length on San Jose's sunshine law, hailed the new benefits to city residents. "There's no question that the process we went through made us a more transparent, open government," he said, even though "it was a lengthy balancing act."

In San Jose, documents are posted 10 days in advance of meetings, as opposed to the state's three-day requirement. Resolutions are posted automatically, rather than by request, and the calendars of top city officials are available online. In an amendment to the law last year, emails on personal accounts that are about city business were made publicly available. Previously, the public had access only to emails sent from the city's official network.

The nonprofit California First Amendment Coalition supports such efforts but argues that instead of drafting new legal rules and standards, local governments should simply limit the restrictions on existing laws that over the years have chipped away at their effectiveness.

The California Supreme Court and the state appeals court, for example, have declared the governor's calendar confidential, in addition to placing behind closed doors discussions relating to public officials' performance and goals.

"No one has done this yet, but in my mind, the very best local ordinance would be one which did nothing more than say: 'The following court decisions interpreting the Brown Act and the Public Records Act don't apply in our city/county,' " said Peter Scheer, the coalition's executive director. "And then you list the dozen or so decisions that have carved huge loopholes in the law."


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