Strengthen Sunshine Laws
YES on Prop. 59
While California's open-government laws are among the
nation's strongest, you'll have a chance on Nov. 2 to make them even
A measure on the statewide ballot, Proposition 59,
would fix into the state constitution the principle of the public's right
It would amend the constitution to state, "The people
have the right of access to information concerning the conduct of the
people's business, and, therefore, the meetings of public bodies and the
writings of public officials and agencies shall be open to public
It’s not as strong as sunshine advocates would like.
Most notably, it wouldn’t touch the legislature – not surprising, since
it’s the legislature that’s putting the measure before the voters – and it
wouldn’t weaken or eliminate any exemptions from current sunshine
statutes. That’s why groups such as the League of California Cities
finally signed onto it.
Still, it represents an improvement over current
• The legislature may not amend the state
Constitution on its own. Under pressure from politicians and bureaucrats,
the legislature has over the years eroded the sunshine statutes affecting
the state and local governments.
• Constitutional law trumps statutory law. So while
sunshine laws must be balanced with personal-privacy and other
constitutional safeguards, Proposition 59 is intended to protect
open-government laws from being discounted or ignored when
sunshine-privacy conflicts arise.
• Under Proposition 59, courts and public agencies
would have to give narrow interpretations to existing laws when barring
citizens from official meetings or withholding certain government records.
The language of Proposition 59 is the product of
three years of tough negotiations among sunshine advocates, public-sector
interests (city and county governments, law-enforcement agencies, employee
unions, etc.), and state legislators.
Leading the effort to get the measure on the ballot
were Terry Francke, founder of Californians Aware (http://www.calaware.org/)
and former general counsel of the California First Amendment Coalition (http://www.cfac.org/);
Tom Newton, general counsel of the California Newspaper Publishers
and attorney James Chadwick of the law firm Gray Cary Ware and Freidenrich.
And sunshine advocates owe a huge thanks to state
Sens. John Burton (D-San Francisco) and Bruce McPherson (R-Santa Cruz) for
carrying the measure, in its current and previous incarnations, in the
Some localities – including San Francisco, Oakland,
and Contra Costa and Los Angeles counties – have open-meetings and
public-records laws stronger than the state’s. Most don’t, and San
Francisco’s Sunshine Ordinance doesn’t touch the school or community
college district (though the districts’ respective boards may adopt their
own open-government guidelines within a few months).
Proposition 59 has a long list of supporters
including Gov. Schwarzenegger; the San Francisco Board of Supervisors; the
Brisbane City Council; the Society of Professional Journalists; the
National Writers Union, Bay Area Chapter 3; the California Labor
Federation; San Francisco Labor/Neighbor; the San Diego-Imperial Counties
Labor Council; the League of Women Voters; the Sierra Club; the San
Francisco and Alameda County Green parties; the Peace & Freedom Party; the
San Fernando Valley Democratic Party; the California Independent Public
Employees Legislative Council; the Communications Workers of America,
Local 9423; and the Progressive Jewish Alliance.
Newspapers endorsing Proposition 59 include the Bay
Guardian; the Chronicle; the San Jose Mercury News; the Vacaville
Reporter; the Sacramento Bee; the Santa Cruz Sentinel; the Los Angeles
Times; and the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Proposition 59 has no known organized opposition. In
fact, the official ballot argument against the measure comes from a
sunshine advocate, Mountain View attorney Gary B. Wesley, who says
the initiative isn’t strong or far-reaching enough.
Proponents don’t have the financial support or foot
soldiers for a formal campaign organization, but we’re not worried.
Surveys over the years have time and again shown that California voters
favor strong sunshine laws.
We agree with Wesley that Proposition 59 isn’t as
strong or far-reaching as it should be. But for the afore-cited and other
reasons, it would still be a big step forward. It deserves your “yes”
For additional information, visit
Richard Knee is a San Francisco-based freelance
journalist active on freedom-of-information and First Amendment issues.