Editorials

From local cops to NSA secrets, let sunshine in

From the minutes of local meetings to the National Security Administration’s bulk collection of American phone records, Sunshine Week celebrates the importance of open government to democracy.
From the minutes of local meetings to the National Security Administration’s bulk collection of American phone records, Sunshine Week celebrates the importance of open government to democracy. The Associated Press

People might like to think that small towns have no secrets. They’d be naive.

In 2012, the East Bay town of Kensington gave a big raise to its police chief. A group of local watchdogs smelled a rat and complained that the decision was insufficiently open. The municipal body involved had refused to take a re-vote.

The watchdogs sued. When an appellate court threw out their case, Kensington’s community services and police district lashed back with a reciprocal and vindictive lawsuit.

Now, though the police chief is gone – a casualty of a subsequent scandal involving an underling, an off-duty junket, a gun and a prostitute in Reno (yes, really) – the chief’s critics are fighting a bill for $159,000 from the district, which wants its legal fees reimbursed.

Towns, large and small, have all kinds of secrets. When those secrets have to do with the public’s business, the public, like any employer, has a right and a responsibility to ferret them out.

As the Kensington case illustrates, that’s not always easy. California’s open-government laws are constantly being tested. Government officials seem to find it easier to say no than yes when the public comes asking for a little sunshine.

Media industry upheaval has cut into profits, so some news outlets can’t muster the legal resources they once could to challenge wrong-headed denials. Local activists and gadflies tend to be cash-strapped, too (and less passionate townsfolk sometimes find them to be intense and annoying).

Financial shortfalls left over from the recession and fishing expeditions have strained the patience of agencies facing demands for public records.

Increasingly, government agencies are reacting by overcharging for the costs of producing documents, and punishing requesters with dubious claims, as in the Kensington lawsuit.

Some public officials stall when faced with demands for access and information. Or they hide behind lawyer-client privilege. Or just stonewall.

And some resist just because they’re confused. The Center for Investigative Reporting sought state citations for patient abuses in long-term care facilities controlled by the state. When state regulators initially released the records, they were so heavily redacted as to be useless.

To the benefit of everyone, including people with vulnerable loved ones who are mentally ill or disabled, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the state had to release the records with minimal redactions.

It shouldn’t have required a Supreme Court decision. The state should have complied, embarrassing though the documents might have been.

This is the 10th anniversary of Sunshine Week, a national initiative to highlight the importance of safeguarding the public’s access to information. You’re forgiven if it’s not on your calendar.

But transparent government isn’t something to take for granted. From NSA surveillance to the secretary of state’s emails to the choice of art outside your town’s new civic arena, democracy depends on everyone having all the information.

So buy a paper. Support a First Amendment nonprofit. And don’t think your government doesn’t need your attention and participation.

People might like to think that being an informed citizen is unsexy. But if your local police sergeant lost his gun to a $70 prostitute in Nevada, and your local police chief had waited nine months to address it, wouldn’t you want to get to the bottom of that secret?

We would. Let the sun shine in.

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