How Open Is Government In San Diego?
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
It's Sunshine Week, but it has nothing to do with the weather. We'll find out how San Diego rates on open government and about efforts currently underway in here to support open government and access to information.
The Society of Professional Journalists, San Diego Chapter will honor Donna Frye, on Wednesday March 16, with a Sunshine Award for her efforts in supporting transparency in government. The event will be held at the Institute for Peace and Justice at USD at 6:30 p.m.
Democracy is something we fight for and sing about in the United States. In fact, we invented the modern version of government of the people, by the people and for the people. But there's no doubt about it, democracy can be messy. That's why many of our elected leaders seem to want to streamline the process, by keeping the public out of it as often as possible.
This is Sunshine Week in California, which honors efforts to open up the doors of government and get information out.
Donna Frye is a former San Diego City Councilwoman and board member for Californians Aware, an organization devoted to open government that provides information, guidance and initiatives in public forum law.
Dave Maass is a staff writer for San Diego City Beat and project lead for Open San Diego Flashlight, a website devoted to making it easier for the public to access public records information about San Diego.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Democracy is something we fight for and sing about in the United States. In fact, we invented the modern version of government, of the people, by the people, and for the people. But there's no doubt about it, democracy can be messy, that's why many of our elected leaders seem to want to stream line the process by keeping the approximately out of it as often as possible. But this is sunshine week in this California, which honors efforts to open up the government and get information out am I'm speaking to two people who are dedicated to that process in San Diego. Donna Frye, former San Diego City Council woman, and board member of Californians aware, an organization dedicated to open government go. Donna good morning.
FRYE: Good morning, how are you?
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm doing quite well. Thank you for joining us.
FRYE: Of course.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And David Maass is here, he's staff writer for San Diego City beat. And project lead for Open San Diego Flashlight, a new website devoted to making it easier for the public to access public records, information about San Diego. Dave, good morning.
MAASS: Good morning.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, let me begin with you, Dave, and ask you what is sunshine week? How did that develop and what do we do to celebrate?
MAASS: Well, from what I understand, it started in Florida, and I think it was the Florida editors and newspaper association, you know, started promoting this idea of having a week where, you know, paper, editors, the public sort of join forces to lobby, advocate for open government and freedom of information. And it sort of picked up from there, and it's a national movement at this point.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It's sort of connected to the Brown act here in California.
MAASS: Yeah, it would be. Yeah.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And tell us a little bit about that.
MAASS: Well, the Brown act is the legislation that insures that the public is allowed to go to public meetings or go to meetings of the government where they make decisions and have public comment and witness the process that happens.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Opening the doors of government, as we were saying. Donna, I know that you became interested in open government before you were elected to the City Council. Tell me a little about that.
FRYE: Well, essentially what got me very interested was the fact that it was so difficult to get information from the City of San Diego. And there would be public hearings that I would try and attend or read the docket material in advance of the hearing, and oftentimes there was no information available or very little, and it was very hard to access. And that just seemed really wrong. And I spent a lot of time trying to get information. One of the hardest things I -- or the most difficult things I encountered was trying to get information in a timely manner so that I was able to participate in the decision making process. When documents weren't available till the day of the hearing, it was very difficult to get up and provide testimony because you didn't know what you were talking about.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And you specifically, Donna, were concerned about environmental --
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Kind of like bacterial counts in San Diego waters and so forth.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So as you were preparing to testify at a hearing, you just didn't have access to the information you needed.
FRYE: Well, in order to make informed testimony, an informed decision and express your opinions to the decision make ares, you have to have information, and it needs to be accurate information. Instead of standing up there and sort of trying to goes or figure out what may or may not be the case. But what I was finding is that there were high levels of bacterial pollution in the waters, in the ocean, specifically in front of the discharging storm drains. The and that -- they were so full of pollution that the public was being exposed to health risks because nobody was really informing them of the bacteria count, and what they and their children and all the beach goers were being exposed to.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So Dave Maass, how difficult is it to access public documents in San Diego today? We just heard Donna Frye tell us about the difficulties she had even before she was a council member, trying to get up-to-date information about bacterial counts, etc. How -- has that changed?
MAASS: Well, I have the benefit of coming to San Diego after Donna Frye had been in office for quite some time. And so I find it exceptionally easy to access documents in the City of San Diego. County, maybe not so much. But they're getting there. So I think the City of San Diego is really good about making sure there's all -- the minutes are there, all the agendas are there in advance, and everything is web cast. So I see the City of San Diego is pretty good. And they just got an award or they're getting one for having a very, very functional website as far as public transparency goes.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What about the county?
MAASS: The county's getting there. They have been slower, I mean, I think the UT has been putting pressure to them to put things like audits on line upon they've got a lot of database systems that are kind of old and slow, but they're there and functional. I can't complaint about their open meetings because I do get the agendas in my RSS feed, I get them in e-mail. I probably get their agendas far too often for what I need for them. But I've never had a problem getting public records from the county. Occasionally I've had to push back against them. But they have been pretty good.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have a caller on the line, Daniel is calling from Clairemont. And Daniel, welcome to These Days.
NEW SPEAKER: Thank you so much, Maureen. And thank you so much, Donna, for everything that you've done to help open up the cracks, the small cracks that there were in getting information from the government and other resources. The one question I have is, now it's physically hard to get into city hall anymore. They've done so much red lining and parking, and parking is so difficult and expensive to get to even attend the meetings because of the development of downtown, and little Italy, I'm just wondering how are we gonna be able to participate? I mean, I have cable, basic cable, so that I can watch and watch the things like I did last night. But how do I participate? I mean if we're not smart phoned and if we're not super speed computered, how do we participate?
FRYE: Well, one of the ways that Daniel can participate, and thanks for the nights comments, on the city clerk's website, there's a form you can fill out, and you can e-mail that, and the clerk 'office will make sure that your comments are distributed to each and every council member in advance of the meeting. So that's one way. The other way is through e-mail; to get your council member know how you feel about a particular item. You can also call them. So there's a variety of ways to get your opinion heard. And to make sure that it's distributed to every decision maker that's going to be in attendance.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Donna Frye, former San Diego City Council woman, and Dave Maass is it a staff writer for San Diego City beat, and project lead for a new website called open San Diego flashlight that we're gonna talk about in just a minute. But Donna, it's been allude said to, and so I do want to get at it and just talk about your time on the council how you boycotted closed council meetings in an effort to open up more of what went on at city hall to the public. And why was that important to you?
FRYE: Well, the thing that really started that in, you know, forward motion very quickly was in November of 2002 when -- and a little bit prior to that where the council had met in closed session and essentially voted to withhold a public document on the sewer cost to service study. Which was a public document which should have been released. And the reason they voted to do that was because the residential rate payers were subsidizing the industrial rate payers. And the mayor at that time, Dick Murphy, did not want that information out. And to me, that was an outrage, and that began that, and I actually, at that time, filed the public records act with then city attorney Casey Gwinn, because I was so outraged by what had happened.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right.
FRYE: And then as far as the boycotting, it just got worse and worse and worse, particularly can the Chargers negotiations which were on and on and on. And the public was being kept out of the entire process, even though the Chargers were talking about exactly what was going on in closed session.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I think Dave gave us a taste of how the open meetings rules have changed on the City Council because of that.
FRYE: Oh, yeah.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, Dave, if you could give us some specific example was how access to data and public information has made a difference in reporting stories that are important to the public. Maybe exposing some things that the public should know.
MAASS: Well, I would love to talk about my own two stories, but when I was asked about this in advance, two stories came to mind, and neither of them were my story. One of them was when Liam Dylan of voice of San Diego, encountered that councilman Ben Hueso in his last few days was going to be giving out something like $11,000 in bonuses of and that was a brief public records battle, but he was able to get the documents, and I think they stopped it in the end. Which is an important thing. It might be only $11,000, and that's not much in the huge pictures of things, but it's important. And I think last year when -- this wasn't even a journalist who did this, this was the people who were advocating against the Miriam mountains project got bill Horn's cellphone records through freedom of public records act request, was able to see that his office, through his phone had communicated with developers at that time, and he denied that it was, you know, it had any impact on his decision to vote or anything like that, and they said they had talked about other fiduciary issues, but the fact remains the public saw that, yes, he was in communication with developers in the lead up to a major development vote.
CAVANAUGH: Right. I'm speaking with Dave Maass and Donna Frye, and we're talking about sunshine week in California, which honors efforts to open up the doors of government and get information out. One of the things that I'm curious about, Dave, about this, I know that in legal cases when there's mutual discovery obligations, sometimes attorneys get so much information it's almost impossible to tell what's relevant. The information as well as buried in information. So how do you wade through this material if indeed all -- you have access to so much data and so many numbers? How do you find that piece of relevant information?
MAASS: Well, I spend a lot of time looking through all of it, and then eventually, maybe you come across something. But there are shortcuts. After time, you start looking through things, and you look for key words, you know? I like when you have an electronic document and you're able to search, and you're able to look for words like audit or deficiency or things like that. But we set up this website for exactly this reason, that there's so much data out there, and so many searches and so many records, that it is difficult to find what's relevant on a specific issue of so we kind of created this gigantic book mark database, where everything's sorted by subject matter, everything's tagged, so if you're like, if I want to know when trash is picked up, if you I want to know campaign finance, who is in jail, I can just click and get all the links I need really quickly.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And this is the San Diego flashlight?
MAASS: Yes, can I say the --
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yes, please.
MAASS: San Diego open flashlight.org. So flashlight like the hand held device you use when the lights go out.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Donna, how can just being a person who is no longer on the City Council, I'm wondering how a layperson can use this kind of information that they can get from open government and from data from the city and the county.
FRYE: Well, it takes some time. I mean, it's easy, for example, to go on the city website and look at the agenda and look at what's being docketed, and being part of a community group or, you know, environmental organizations, open government organizations, reading newspapers, reading alternative weeklies, listening to KPBS, these are all way Is that the citizens can get involved, and they will get involved with like minded citizens. So a lot of it is working with people that are already doing it, and it just takes practice, you just get better and better, you know what to look for, you know where to find things of then this new project that Dave's doing, that's outstanding of that's kind of a one stop shop. So it's just -- it's practice.
MAASS: And I would also add that.
FRYE: It's nonintuitive.
MAASS: I would also add that there are some sites that are updated on a regular base us or I get feeds that come in every day, or I get feeds that come in every day, and I just look at everything that comes in, if it's -- you can see everything -- all the daily lobbyists' filings from the various secretary of states' offices. If you check it on a regular basis, it doesn't get to be so overwhelming.
FRYE: But one of the tricks is to make sure because if you look at the way items are docketed and agendaized and the description of what is actually being voted on, that portion of the Brown act is extremely important so that a -- you know, the average person looking at an agenda item will actually understand what the action is, and that it won't be so obtuse and opaque that they read it and don't realize that that action is to spend $500 million.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. Exactly.
FRYE: That is a way that people get around, even though they -- it's docketed, it's not always clear what it is.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You know, from time to time, this is a question to both of you, let me start with you, first, Donna. From time to time, politicians and government operatives will basically say there are certain things that need to be conducted in private. You know, it's better for the process if we don't have the public scrutiny on us at this stage or during this type of discussion, how can governments make a good choice as to what to keep private and what to be open about?
FRYE: They can actually follow the Brown act. Brown act very clearly spells out those very limited exceptions as to what can be discussed in closed session. So they need to follow the law. And if they do that, there won't be a problem, it's when people docket information that might be politically embarrassing, and decide, well, we want to -- we really don't want to talk about that because it will embarrass someone. So the way governments can make sure that they are on the right track is to follow the Brown act.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Dave?
MAASS: Just a matter of attitude. The question shouldn't be do we release this? The default should be we release this. And do we have any reason not to? Always, I would say you're better off assuming that the record is going to be public, and should be made public, unless there is some over whelming reason nod to do it. But I'm a journalist. So I would prefer everybody give me everything. So it's in my nature.
FRYE: Right, except when it's not in the public interests to do so, when you might be in the middle of negotiations on a property, for example, and you really don't want the other side to know what your bottom line is. That information and keeping that closed, and keeping that outside of the public until the final negotiations take place, those are the types of decisions that does -- they actually do protect the public and are in the public's best interests. And that really, to me, is the most important thick. What is in the public's best interests to know?
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Dave still wants to know.
MAASS: I still want to know I still want to know.
FRYE: Well, that's because he's Dave Maass, and he needs to know. And I don't blame him. I want to know everything too.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Donna, I want to talk about some challenges to the climate of open government that we have, that we're developing here in California in San Diego.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I know that you have concerns that the strong mayor form of government which we have now actually does affect the ability of journalists and citizens to get public information.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How so?
FRYE: Well, and council members. Because it used to be under the council manager form of government that the elected officials had some authority to get that information because they could hire or fire the city manager. So if that information was not forthcoming quickly, you could put the city manager on notice. Now, because the mayor is the executive branch, and essentially the city manager, there is really nothing that the council can do except file public records or hold press conferences to compel information to be released in a timely manner. It's very, very difficult. Of and if information -- they'll just say, well, are we haven't finished it yet, or we don't have it yet. So it's very difficult to have sort of a hammer to get that information timely, and you know, where you can actually make an informed decision.
CAVANAUGH: Dave, do you find that's sort of an end run around the open government statutes that we have?
MAASS: You know, this did concern me about the strong mayor form of government. I can't complain about this current, you know, mayor. I think that has press staff has all been very, very quick in getting me records. But I do have the same concerns. It all depends on who's in the administration.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Strangely enough, it seems that the current budget situation in Sacramento is posing some challenges to the Brown act that provides for a lot of sunshine in government here in California. 28 us about that, Dave.
MAASS: Okay. So among the cuts, Jerry Brown is suggesting $63 million that local governments receive for reimbursing for, you know, making open meetings 457, for carrying out the Brown act, I guess. They pay them to put out public notices of this was a surprise to me. I mean, I'm new to California. I was surprised that local governments are reimbursed from this stuff, because it doesn't seem like it takes that much more taxually to treat the public like they're a City Council member. So I'm not hugely alarmed. I think government should be able to do this without state subsidies, but other people might have different opinions.
FRYE: Just so you know.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yeah, uh-huh.
FRYE: There's state legislation that has been introduced to not have the following the public records be considered a state mandate. And that funding would have to be provided. So there's legislation that is now moving forward that would require governments to do it whether there's any money forthcoming or not.
MAASS: Uh-huh. That would be senator YOOIZs.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I read somewhere that there's a claim it's going to cost tens of thousands of local governments to do that. I was trying to find out what that would be. But I couldn't.
FRYE: Well, I don't think the City of San Diego has billed the state. I could be wrong. Maybe they do.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: There's also a challenge to the effectiveness of the Brown act coming from technology, Donna.
FRYE: Yes am.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The idea that people can now basically text message.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: People, politicians, council members who are making decisions in open council meeting.
FRYE: Yes, and it happens. It's no shock that there's people sitting in the audience with a particular point of view and are texting either council members or staff members right in the middle of the public hearing. And it does pose some issue, as far as I'm concerned.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do you think those text messages are -- should be open to the public.
FRYE: Yes. Yes. It's a public meeting. Absolutely it should be. If you're texting a council member and having communication, those text messages, those e-mails, whatever information you're receiving absolutely should be required that they're all released to the public.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's fascinating. And Dave?
MAASS: Yeah. I didn't know they weren't. I'm pretty sure that I could put it in and get those.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: All right.
FRYE: Why don't you ask for some and see what happens?
MAASS: Well, it doesn't have to be me. It could be anybody who's listening right now. I don't know why it has to be me.
FRYE: I know, but you're very good at it.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Dave, how do you hope people will use San Diego flashlight?
MAASS: Well, I would hope that if they have a question about something or they just want information, and whether this is they want to look up a criminal case of somebody they know, self advocacy, or if they want to look up somebody in the government, they'll sit down and say, okay, I'm given this range of choices. I'm looking at things related to crime and justice. You click on the crime and justice tab, you're given a set of link, there you go. I would love for other journalists to ruse this as a starting point for research. I've got it set up that you can use it and make little drop-down bars on your browser so you can hit these things really quickly. Campaign finance is always one of the driving things for open records. And people really want to know who is exerting political influence. And having people continuously looking at this information is important 'cause there's just too much data out there for just me, try as I might, having people go through on a regular basis, then do stuff themselves, e-mail reporters about it, are whatever, that is the sort of thing we're looking at. But maybe it's just to generally empower people and make them feel like they can access information just like they were any kind of academic researcher or somebody on the inside of government.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Donna, I know that a lot of pope government sometimes annoys people who are trying to make policy, and so forth. But do you think that it actually does make -- make the public more trusting in government in the long run?
FRYE: Yes. When you see the decisions that are made in an open setting, and I'll give you one perfect example of how open government, withes. Let's talk about Diane chip I don't know. Diane chip I don't know comes down to the City Council meeting before a really body decision was going to be made on the pension and provides public testimony and says, look, don't do this. This is the wrong thing to do. That gave me a warning. Had she not come do you happen, I probably would have voted to do the under funding. So she, as the whistle blower, in coming down and providing information made a huge impact. And the public knows a lot. If you just give them the opportunity. And if it slows it down, so be it. Then it needs to be slowed down.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Donna, people are beginning to announce their candidacy for mayor of San Diego in 2012. Have you been thinking about it?
MAASS: I should add that I've been asked by no less than 3 or 4 people to ask you about that.
FRYE: Oh, I thought you were gonna announce, Dave.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: No, has any of this given you an itch to go back into city government?
FRYE: Well, I -- I might be physically removed as an elected official, but I'm still involved. And I'm working on issues that I want to work on right now, particularly homeless issues, seniors, lunch programs, things like that. I'll always be involved in government, whether it's going to be from, you know, outside or inside, I haven't decided that yet.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay. All right. So it's an official non-announcement.
FRYE: It's an official nothing, yes. Yeah. Nothing official.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to let everyone know that the society of professional journalists here in San Diego will honor Donna Frye tonight with the sunshine award for her efforts at supporting transparency in government. That event will be held at the institute for peace and justice at USD at 6:30. More information is on our website, KPBS.org/These Days. Donna Frye and Dave Maass, thank you so much.
MAASS: Thank you.
FRYE: Thank you, and I just want to say one last thing. Our city clerk does an outstanding job on the campaign disclosures, and their website is outstanding and Liz Malon deserves a huge amount of credit, and Chuck Asenhower for getting the city as far along as they are.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Fair enough. Thanks so much.
MAASS: And assembly member Kevin Jeffries also deserves drops for being the coauthor of sunshine week legislation.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have to leave it there. But I appreciate it. If you would like to comment, please go on-line, KPBS.org/These Days. Stay with us for two-hour of These Days coming up in just a few minutes right here on KPBS.