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Strengthen Sunshine Laws

YES on Prop. 59

By Richard Knee

While California's open-government laws are among the nation's strongest, you'll have a chance on Nov. 2 to make them even stronger.

A measure on the statewide ballot, Proposition 59, would fix into the state constitution the principle of the public's right to know.

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 scrutiny."

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 open-government laws:

• 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 Association (http://www.cnpa.com/); 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 legislature.

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” vote.

For additional information, visit http://www.prop59.org/.

Richard Knee is a San Francisco-based freelance journalist active on freedom-of-information and First Amendment issues.