Open Government Ballot Measure Proposed For San Diego
Donna Frye, the former director of open government under Mayor Bob Filner, didn't get many opportunities to actually open government to the public.
"It's hard to provide open government when you aren't allowed to talk to the press," Frye said during a September panel, referencing Filner's strict control over media contact during his tenure as mayor.
On Wednesday she will present a ballot measure for the city of San Diego that would change the City Charter to require more public access to government records. Her proposal will go before the city's Committee on Economic Development and Intergovernmental Relations, the first stop to get it before voters on the June 2014 ballot.
The measure's proposals will "help resolve some of the issues of public access that we have run into time and time again," Frye said. It would require:
- Communication on all mediums, including emails and text messages, that concerns city business to be open to public records requests. Currently, the charter only requires that "books, records and accounts" be open.
- If the city denies access to a public record, a written justification be provided explaining what harm would result from that disclosure.
- Access to city employees' and city contractors' communication. The charter currently only requires access to city officials' communication.
- Any new city rule or policy that resulted in limiting access to records or meetings be based on factual evidence demonstrating the need for that rule or policy.
- Rules or policies limiting access to meetings or records must go through an annual review process.
"The more information the public has, the better able they are to participate in decisions that affect them and their everyday lives," Frye said. "When you can't get the information and one side has the information and the public, which is usually the ones on the other side, doesn't have that information, they're at an extreme disadvantage."
San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith sent out a report to the committee in response to the ballot measure, which suggests several changes to it. Goldsmith said some of the language the ballot measure would add to the City Charter is "confusing and unclear," and said requiring disclosure of city contractors' communication would be costly.
"Consider whether the deletion of certain privacy rights might be interpreted as limiting the rights of privacy," he added.
The ballot measure is one of several movements toward increasing government access in San Diego. In September, City Councilman Mark Kersey proposed an open data policy to the City Council that would put more city data online in easy-to-access formats. The policy was approved by council committee in November but has yet to go before the full City Council.
Frye said she isn't working directly with Kersey, but that her ballot measure would "synchronize quite well" with Kersey's policy if it's approved. Her charter changes would require more government records to be released, which could include more data. Kersey's policy could then govern that data, requiring it to be released in spreadsheet form so it can be more easily analyzed.
"You really need to have the ability to get the data before you can make that policy very effective," she said.
Interim Mayor Todd Gloria also created an open data advisory group last week to help develop the open data policy and implementation plan.
All of these moves are good ones in Frye's mind. She sees them as steps toward a larger embrace of open government in San Diego, a change that was spurred in part by the lack of transparency in the Filner administration.
"Based on the last administration, particularly now that we have a better understanding of the strong mayor form of government, we can pretty clearly see where some of the problems are," she said. "For example, an annual review of the policies that are sort of de facto holding back public information, that we'd at least get to have a discussion about them. I think that's reasonable."