By Anne Lowe

OPEN GOVERNMENT – A work session on a proposed ordinance to increase public access to public meetings and records has been continued to January, the Berkeley Daily Planet reports.

The proposed Sunshine Ordinance has been redrafted 24 times over the last ten years and has recently taken the form of an initiative backed by a Citizens Sunshine Committee.

The city estimated a cost of over $2 million to implement the initiative, and during the work session City Council Members considered drafting yet another ordinance before the initiative goes before voters in 2012.

The Daily Planet reports:

The only public comment at the (Tuesday night) work session came from Sherry Smith, President of the League of Women Voters of Berkeley, Albany and Emeryville. She voiced the LWV's support of a Sunshine Ordinance and named a number of components that the LWV would like to see in an ordinance, including the release of the Council agenda packet at least one week earlier.

The Citizens Sunshine Committee gave a twenty-minute presentation regarding their most recent draft of the ordinance. The group has drafted three different versions of the initiative between January of 2009 and May of this year, awaiting city staff's fiscal analysis and response to each.

The main concern of the city staff has been the cost of implementing the ordinance, estimating that the CSC's most recent draft represents $2 million in “ongoing annual costs.” The CSC disputed that number, saying that the staff estimate includes technological upgrades and modernization that ought to be made regardless of any ordinance.

The CSC also argued that payroll expenses are very high because the city government doesn’t have up-to-date technology, and that the time spent servicing Public Records Act requests alone could be reduced by 100 hours per week with the right technical assistance. “The bottom line is the staff estimates reflect a profound extreme and shockingly wasteful fiscal management,” stated Roger Marquis, the CSC's information technology consultant.

The staff's Power Point presentation focused on four primary points for an ordinance: the agenda process, the conduct of meetings, how public records are made available, and the possibility of an advisory commission for the ordinance. The staff committed to the council that it could have a draft ordinance prepared by January for consideration.

Everybody on the council, on the city staff, and from the CSC claimed to have the same ultimate goal. Councilmember Max Anderson said that it is to have “an open government that is responsive to the citizenry, and still allows us to proceed in a manner that we don't induce some self-imposed paralysis on the government.”

Councilmember Kriss Worthington pointed out that there are a number of points in the ordinance that are not particularly controversial on which most of the council seemed to agree. Nobody argued against the need for a more accessible venue for council meetings or the need for an easier-to-navigate website. Everybody agreed that the meetings should not run later than 12 a.m., with most councilmembers wishing that they would not run past 10 or 11 p.m.

It also seemed that everybody wanted an earlier release of the council agenda packet, which would give the public as well as the councilmembers more time to study the issues being presented at the meeting. Since the CSC's ordinance will likely be approved for the November, 2012 ballot, but will probably not be passed before then, Worthington recommended that the Council take action on passing those non-controversial sections of the ordinance at the next available opportunity, most likely at the upcoming January discussion.