People might like to think that small towns have no secrets. They’d be naive.
In 2012, the East Bay town of Kensington gave a big raise to its police chief. A group of local watchdogs smelled a rat and complained that the decision was insufficiently open. The municipal body involved refused to take a re-vote.
So the watchdogs sued. When an appellate court threw out their case, Kensington’s community services and police district lashed back with a reciprocal and vindictive lawsuit.
Now, though the police chief is gone – a casualty of a subsequent scandal involving an underling, an off-duty junket, a gun and a prostitute in Reno (yes, really) – the chief’s critics are fighting a bill for $159,000 from the district, which wants its legal fees reimbursed.
Towns, large and small, have all kinds of secrets. When those secrets have to do with the public’s business, the public has a right and a responsibility to ferret them out.
As the Kensington case illustrates, that’s not always easy. California’s open-government laws are constantly being tested. Government officials seem to find it easier to say no than to say yes when the public comes asking for a little sunshine.
Media industry upheaval has cut into profits, so some news outlets can’t muster the legal resources they once could to challenge wrong-headed denials. Local activists and gadflies tend to be cash-strapped, too – and less passionate neighbors sometimes find them to be intense and annoying.
Financial shortfalls left over from the recession and fishing expeditions have strained the patience of agencies facing demands for public records.
Increasingly, government agencies are reacting by overcharging for the costs of producing those documents, and punishing those who request them with dubious claims, as in the Kensington lawsuit.
Some public officials stall when faced with demands for access and information. Or they hide behind lawyer-client privilege. Or just stonewall. Some resist just because they’re confused.
The Center for Investigative Reporting sought state citations for patient abuses in long-term care facilities controlled by the state. When state regulators initially released the records, they were so heavily redacted that they were useless.
To the benefit of everyone, including people with vulnerable loved ones who are mentally ill or disabled, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously the state had to release the records with minimal redactions.
It shouldn’t have required a Supreme Court decision. The state should have complied, embarrassing though the documents might have been.
This is the 10th anniversary of Sunshine Week, a national initiative to highlight the importance of safeguarding the public’s access to information.
It’s necessary because transparent government isn’t something we can ever allow to be taken for granted. From NSA surveillance to the secretary of state’s emails to how your electricity charges are calculated or how much groundwater is being pumped, democracy depends on everyone having access to all the information. It might not be important to you at the moment, but the moment governmental agencies are allowed to hide information is the moment we lose our democracy.
So buy a paper. Support a First Amendment nonprofit. Cast your information net far and wide. And when reporters or your neighbors are told some information is too sensitive to be divulged, pay even closer attention. The things government doesn’t want us to know are the very things we must know if we’re too keep our communities, our state and our nation healthy and free.
We would. Let the sun shine in.