Sunday, January 8, 2017

GUEST POST: Looking back: Benicia's long journey toward open government

By Elizabeth Warnimont

After the city council’s recent open government training session on Jan. 3, the Herald interviewed a few key players who are credited with bringing the city’s current Open Government Ordinance into being. Mayor Elizabeth Patterson, City Attorney Heather McLaughlin and former Benicia Herald Editor John Moses agreed to be interviewed regarding the history and significance of the ordinance.
   While the concept of open government is now largely embraced by Benicia city staff, that spirit of cooperation did not come easily – the Brown Act did not cast its influence over the city of Benicia until a few key figures elected to make open government a priority here back in 2003.
   The Brown Act was passed by the California State Legislature in 1953. In its original form, it addressed public concern regarding government entities such as city councils conducting their business in secret. The introduction to the Brown Act reads:
   “In enacting this chapter, the Legislature finds and declares that the public commissions, boards and councils and the other public agencies in this State exist to aid in the conduct of the people's business. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly. The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the governing bodies they have created.”
   According to accounts from Patterson, McLaughlin and former Moses, a galvanizing event spurred a few residents to start pushing for easier access to government records late in 2003. A developer was proposing a housing development in the area of the Jefferson Mansion called Jefferson Park, and a number of residents were concerned. 
   Moses, who served as editor from 1997 to 2006, recalls that his efforts to view the blueprints for the project at the planning department were rebuffed, even after he pointed out that he had a legal right to see them. However, he happened to encounter then-councilmembers Tom Campbell and Bill Whitney at the Benicia Fire Department just a few days later. 
   “We weren’t on the same page with a lot of things,” Moses recalled, “but they both said ‘well, maybe we should take a serious look at this.’”
   Mayor Patterson, who was a councilmember at the time, confirms that Campbell then came to her with the complaint, and the two of them sat down at her home computer to begin drafting an ordinance.
   “After the city attorney (McLaughlin) reworked our draft to make it conform to Benicia Municipal Code, the committee reviewed it and it was submitted to the Council for consideration,” Patterson recalled.
   A citizen group called the Sunshine Committee soon became an advisory group to the city council. The group was later renamed the Open Government Commission, and the Sunshine Ordinance draft became the Open Government Ordinance that was eventually enacted in 2005. 
   Patterson credits a handful of people for working tirelessly to make the ordinance a reality.
   “In addition to City Attorney Heather McLaughlin and the indomitable John Moses, there was League of Women Voters’ Kitty Griffin; Bob Craft, an eloquent advocate for open government; Donnell Rubay, Will Gregory, Belinda Smith, Luana Luther, Ed Salzman and Jon Van Landschoot.”
   Patterson received an award in recognition of Benicia’s open government ordinance in 2006 from the Society of Professional Journalism. 
   “In recognition of our work on the Open Government Ordinance, I received the James Madison Freedom of Information Award in March 2006,” she wrote in a column for the Herald in 2014. “However, this recognition really belongs to John (Moses) and all Benicians.”
   McLaughlin agreed that it wasn’t until around 2003 that the idea of an open government ordinance started gaining ground in Benicia.
   “I think it was probably a critical mass of people wanting to get information and not being able to get it,” she opines. “There were some projects getting people excited and they wanted to know more about them. When I look at the notes from the first meeting, it was people wanting information on the Jefferson Park project.”
   All three interviewees recalled that there was some substantial push-back from the government and business communities. Then-mayor Steve Messina and the Chamber of Commerce, for example, were reluctant to adopt an ordinance that they feared would flood city employees with new responsibilities. It helped, though, McLaughlin  recalled, that a lot of the information started getting posted online, so people were able to access whatever they were after without requiring much additional staff time.
   “In the end, the ordinance didn’t result in a lot of extra work. Initially yes. You’re trying to get the agendas out (in the prescribed, shorter time frame) and it wasn’t part of the routine. I think the committee and council were good in thinking ahead (to start putting things online). Once information was posted on the website, people were able to access it any time of day or night.”
   Today, McLaughlin said, the city of Benicia website is vastly improved. 
   “Right now, we have great IT manager, Mr. Naveed Ashras, who has the skill to bring us forward. We’re getting much more high-tech. We have an agenda management software and we’re just now transitioning to a newer and better one.”
   McLaughlin hopes public access to city government will continue to improve here.
   “We’re always trying to find room for improvement," she said. "We keep a log of public records requests to see if there are things we should be putting on the website that aren’t there. Because of the way we keep records, sometimes it can be a chore to find everything. People categorize things differently. You may have a great system, then somebody else comes along and thinks a different way.” Making government records more accessible to the public has been an ongoing process, she says.
   The state legislature makes periodic revisions to the Brown Act throughout the year, and the city of Benicia will continue to make compliance a priority.
   Benicia’s Open Government Ordinance may be viewed online at A copy of any particular section of Benicia’s municipal code can also be obtained from the city clerk by calling 746-4200. For clarification of a particular code, contact the city attorney’s office at 746-4216.

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