Safeguarding open government is a constant struggle. Backsliding can happen easily if people aren’t vigilant.
We have a case in point right here in Sacramento on the eve of Sunshine Week, the annual series of events spotlighting the importance of public access to government.
Last April, Sacramento City Council members, in a welcome advance for openness, decided that all labor agreements and any contracts topping $1 million should be posted on the city’s website for at least 10 days before a council vote. The change to their rules of procedure took effect July 1.
Yet there was a proposal before council members to kill the 10-day rule for big contracts – at least until The Bee’s editorial board starting nosing around and a local watchdog group raised a stink.
Tuesday night, the council said it would keep the “sunshine” rule, and several members spoke in favor of transparency. But even the prospect of backtracking was disturbing, and the timing was curious, to say the least. It only fed suspicions that the city is trying to ram through the downtown arena deal.
As watchdog group Eye on Sacramento pointed out in a Monday letter to council members, next month they are to consider the final financing agreement for the planned downtown arena. It’s a deal that could use as much public and media scrutiny as possible, given how important the project is for the city and how much taxpayers have at stake. Last March, the council was criticized for making a mockery of transparency by approving the current arena “term sheet” only three days after it had been made public.
In practice, the sunshine rule has meant 12 days of advance notice – seven days between regular council meetings, plus the normal five days in advance that contracts had been posted online as part of council agendas. In emergencies, the council can waive the requirement with a two-thirds vote.
In recent months, the 10-day notice applied to contracts of $5.3 million for water meters in Parkway and Valley Hi, $1.2 million for an interchange at Interstate 5 and Cosumnes River Boulevard, $5.6 million for 6,000 new smart parking meters and $1.5 million for a LNG fuel station in Meadowview. These are all bread-and-butter municipal projects that residents and taxpayers care about and should have ample time to review.
The City Clerk’s Office, however, says it received no positive feedback about the rule, while it added staff time and confused the public. Even so, the city certainly hasn’t demonstrated that the burden comes anywhere close to outweighing the benefit to the public.
There is no compelling reason to scrap the notice requirement, and any problems can be easily fixed.