Op-ed: How much is democracy worth in Berkeley?

By Dean Metzger and Josh Wolf

Dean Metzger and Josh Wolf both sit on the Berkeley Sunshine Committee.

How much is democracy worth in Berkeley? Around the world thousands are losing their lives for liberty, but on Tuesday the City Council is poised to bet that $2 million is enough to convince voters to turn their backs on open government.

Agenda Item No. 38 on the May 15 calendar will certify the Berkeley Sunshine Ordinance. In the process, the Council plans to put the following summary on the ballot for an initiative that would ensure that more government records are available to the people, meetings are properly agendized and open to the public, and that the City should be held accountable when it violates this ordinance and existing state open government laws:

Read the City of Berkeley Initiative Petition on the Sunshine Ordinance.

Shall an ordinance be adopted: enacting new agenda and meetings requirements for the City Council, the Rent Stabilization Board and all 30+ City Commissions, including limits on their ability to respond to emergencies and other time-sensitive issues; increasing disclosure requirements for public records; and creating a new commission with authority to sue the City, at an estimated combined annual cost of $2 million?

The city is required to provide an impartial summary of the ballot measure, but despite the fact that the term sunshine has been commonly used to describe such legislation for more than 50 years, the summary neither uses the word sunshine nor the term “open government.”

“I read the staff report and the ballot question,” Councilmember Jesse Arreguìn told the Berkeley Sunshine campaign in an email. “Not only does it cite the $2-million-dollar price tag, which I think is over-inflated, it presents the measure in a negative way and is written to ensure that voters will not approve it. I don’t think it’s impartial at all.”

The $2 million dollars is laughable. San Francisco, a city and county with many more government functions and seven times the population of Berkeley, has determined that its sunshine laws only cost the city $900,000 per year. This is nothing more than an effort by city bureaucrats to scare the people of Berkeley into voting against a more democratic government.

Please help ensure your neighbors are given accurate information on the ballot by signing the petition we’ve created at Berkeley Sunshine. We will deliver the petition at the May 15 council meeting. Please also consider writing your council members and speaking at public comment on this issue.

In March 2011 the city council passed the “Open Government Ordinance” hoping to convince the public that this sunshine ordinance wasn’t necessary. But nothing has changed under their “Open Government Ordinance”  because nothing in their ordinance is enforceable, and they created a commission with no authority do anything; the new commission is essentially engineered for impotence.

The proposed sunshine ordinance does not limit any of the city’s commissions and committees, or the City Council, to respond to emergencies and other time-sensitive issues. All the Sunshine Ordinance will  do is require that the city follow the “Brown Act,” that all meetings are  open and accessible to the public and that nothing new is quietly slipped into the agenda at the 11th hour.

Yes, the sunshine ordinance does give the Sunshine Commission the power to sue the city, but only if the city does not follow the law and refuses to make legally-public documents and meetings accessible to all.

If passed, the Berkeley Sunshine Ordinance will be one of the strongest in the country.

What better place than here? What better time than now? Join us at Berkeley Sunshine.org

Berkeleyside welcomes submissions of op-ed articles of 500 to 800 words. We ask that we are given first refusal to publish. Topics should be Berkeley-related and local authors are preferred. Please email submissions to us. Berkeleyside will publish op-ed pieces at its discretion.