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 would soon be destroyed, although canceled by the new mayor, Kevin Faulconer, just today, resulted in another new provision requiring preservation of all city records less than two years old—the state requirement.
A third effect of the new additions to the proposal would require that the email records of any communication touching city business by municipal employees, elected officials or agents, be filed on or copied to city servers—a response to the practice of using private email accounts for official processes.
The result is perhaps the strictest attempt known yet to use local rules to open government to public scrutiny, Supporters argue that the relatively prompt resolution of the recent controversies does not weaken the case for preventive rules in the charter, since changes in the city’s elected leadership could mean a reversal of transparency policies if not undergirded by rules requiring a public vote to change or abandon.
“If you don’t want the paper trail of public accountability to vanish in a year, or stay hidden in the private files of a city contractor, or be channeled out of sight in officials’ private emails, you need charter language that says so and can’t be changed at the whim of the next city council that doesn’t like the sunshine, ” said CalAware General Counsel Terry Francke.