Government records: what we don’t know will hurt us

150 150 Cheryl Getuiza

(photo credit: Cindy Devin)

The city of San Diego is king when it comes to sunshine. But not all matters in the city are shining so bright. That’s according to one former city official, now the head of Californians Aware.

“What the public doesn’t know WILL hurt them,” said Donna Frye, President of Californians Aware.

Frye is on a mission–and it’s a big one–to change the culture within City Hall to enhance public access to government records.

“The public has a right to know what their public officials are doing and why,” said Frye. “Public documents should be readily available and it should not require the threat of litigation to obtain them. The more information people have, the better they are able to participate in government in a meaningful way. Open data policies will improve public participation and allow the public to help identify solutions for government.”

Frye recently presented an open government ballot measure in San Diego. The measure is targeting some of the issues that people have run into when requesting records. In fact, she’s used some of her own experiences as a former councilwoman (Frye was elected in 2001 and termed out in 2010) as basis for the measure.

The measure would require:

  • Communication on all mediums that concerns city business to be open to public records requests. Right now, the charter only requires that books, records and accounts be open.
  • If the city denies a request, a written justification as to why the requested documents would be harmful to city.
  • Access to city employees’ and city contractors’ communication. Right now, the charter only gives access to city officials’ communications.
  • Rules or policies limiting access to meetings or records must go through a review process every two years, in front of the Council and during public hearings.

“It’s been the culture in City Hall, generally unwritten policies, that when someone asks for a public document, the answer is ‘No, we can’t give that to you. We have discretion because it might fall under an exemption. So no, we’re not going to give it to you.’ Our ballot measure is designed to require the City to change that behavior,” said Frye.

Frye said she didn’t get many opportunities to actually open government under then-Mayor Bob Filner, who appointed her the director of open government. She’s hoping to get her chance with this ballot measure.

“Most government issues that really get out of control are because the public is not informed or misinformed. If they have the information and know what’s happening, it can help them participate in government decisions,” said Frye.

The Committee on Economic Development and Intergovernmental Relations unanimously voted to forward the measure to the full council. Californians Aware is working with the City to address concerns with the measure. Frye hopes to get it on the February 11th docket so it can be placed on the June ballot.


Cheryl Getuiza

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