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Assault on your right to know


“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

— Thomas Jefferson

“As you know, I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.”

— Donald Trump

It’s National Sunshine Week, a nationwide observance on the vital importance of open government and the public’s right to know, and Petalumans should be deeply concerned about the ongoing trend towards secrecy in government and the mounting restrictions being placed on the free flow of information about what their government is doing.

In Washington D.C, a neophyte president frets mightily about “leaks” of government information that might embarrass him, while labeling journalists nationwide “the enemy of the people.”

Here in California, and despite overwhelming voter approval of the Sunshine Initiative in 2004, a proposition that made access to government records a civil right under the state’s constitution, many government records are still difficult, if not impossible, to retrieve in a timely fashion, or at all.

The preamble to the California Public Records Act notes, “The Legislature, mindful of the right of individuals to privacy, finds and declares that access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state.” Under the law, people are entitled to view and copy any documents or other records containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used, or retained by any local government agency.

At least that is what’s supposed to happen. In practice, however, the Public Records Act is frequently ignored by government agencies, while new initiatives to conceal public records are frequent and ongoing. Ironically, the Public Records Act does not apply to the business of the State Legislature itself, a deeply troubling omission.

Public notices published in newspapers have been required since 1789 in the United States as a way to keep communities informed of city, county, school and other important government business. Such notices can include meeting agendas, government salaries, budgets, zoning decisions, delinquent tax lists, bid awards, election information and proposed ordinances. Were such notices not required by law, it’s easy to envision government officials holding secret meetings, or awarding construction bids to their friends before others know such bids were even being sought.

Decisions made by the Petaluma City Council, County Board of Supervisors, SMART Rail agency, Petaluma City Schools, Old Adobe School District and numerous other local fire and rural school districts affect the pocketbooks of all local taxpayers, especially when they include the disposition of revenues from property taxes, sales taxes, business taxes, and state or federal grants. It’s your money, and you have an absolute right to know how it’s being spent. The only way the public, and the press, can hold government officials accountable is by having unfettered access to their written or electronic deliberations and communications on public matters.

On a recent visit to Sacramento, we met with Petaluma’s Assemblyman, Marc Levine, and its State Senator, Bill Dodd, in part to discuss the latest attempt to repeal state laws requiring the public to be informed of significant governmental actions by publication in a newspaper of general circulation. The proposed law, put forth by a Republican State Senator, would eliminate the required publication of certain public notices like liens for non-payment of taxes, and instead bury such notices on an obscure government website. How much easier it would be for government agencies to seize property for someone’s perceived failure to pay taxes if public notices of such pending actions were hidden from view. We were heartened that both Levine and Dodd told us they would not support the bill, and are hoping a majority of their colleagues agree. But the battle to preserve and protect your right to know about government actions and deliberations is fierce and ongoing.

Laws regarding open meetings are similarly vital to ensuring maximum public participation in government affairs, and we’ve seen them abused as well. We can recall, with lingering astonishment, learning about a secret meeting in 2000 where four members of the Petaluma City Council gathered illegally in a covert meeting to question three candidates who were running for a single open council seat. The intent was to determine who was the most ideologically compatible and thus worthy of their powerful political endorsement. When one of the rejected candidates was pressured to drop out of the race to make it easier for the anointed candidate to win the election, he bravely refused, and instead visited the Argus-Courier offices to expose this brazen attempt to manipulate the election behind closed doors.

It can be easy for local government boards, especially smaller ones, to operate without scrutiny, mainly because so many meetings attract few if any observers. Making matters worse is when such public meetings are scheduled at times when most members of the public cannot attend them.

For a democratic republic to function properly, whether on the national, state or local level, it requires an engaged and informed citizenry that demands transparency and accountability from their elected representatives. Sunshine Week lasts seven days, but it’s up to all of us to keep the sun shining on government all year long. For more information, visit sunshineweek.rcfp.org.