A proposed Sunshine Ordinance for Dixon has been in the news lately. The official title is the “Dixon Open Governance Act.”
The person primarily behind the ordinance, which seeks greater openness and transparency in local government, is Ourania Riddle, a gentle and soft-spoken woman. With county grand jury and other governmental experience, she has taken on the mission of helping citizens better understand and participate in local government. I would guess that “Don’t just leave decisionmaking to city staff and the city council” might be her and others’ mantra.
Riddle presented a proposed ordinance to the city council last year, and things dragged along. There were a couple of public workshops and council members got bogged down in discussing the ordinance word by word and page by page. Or possibly, they were deliberately delaying it, hoping it would go away. I would guess that some council members and the city’s attorney are alarmed that the ordinance takes some of their power away and transfers it to residents. Riddle and others got impatient with the glacially-slow progress and now are soliciting signatures to place the ordinance on a ballot where the voters could decide on the act, rather than the council. They’d like to have more than enough signatures by May 4. I’ve seen their table at .
The ordinance went through several versions, with some of the provisions eliminated or shortened, until the version which will possibly go on a ballot this year was arrived at. It can be seen at www.dixonsunshine.com/text-of-the-initiative/
I doubt that many will take the time to read the initiative/proposed ordinance because it’s long (10 pages when I printed it out) and to a non-lawyer, it’s not always the easiest to understand. But I have skimmed it and can provide an overview.
First off, let me say that one of our Dixon elected officials once told me that he trusts people unless they do something that erodes that trust. I think he was talking about city staff members and other elected or appointed governmental officials. I think that attitude may work with personal relationships outside of government, but after seeing what a lack of citizen oversight resulted in, in cities like Bell, California, it’s better to assume that if the opportunity to do wrong and work for personal gain is present, some in government are going to go for it. It’s best to make those in government earn their trust, rather than the other way around.
This is a time for more smart people to know what their government is doing. Certainly here in Dixon, there’s a segment of the population that has the time and interest to make sure things are on the level and there aren’t hidden backroom deals. This ordinance would give them more tools to accomplish that.
As the citywide racetrack vote killing the city council deal showed, people here don’t automatically accept what’s handed them.
And now, to the Sunshine ordinance. There are certain sunshine (or open-meeting) laws already in place in California – this ordinance adds to those.
The first sections deal with local government meetings, making sure that the public is informed of them with sufficient time to attend or view electronically, and that nearly all information pertaining to all meetings be available to everyone. The exception would be closed sessions, which the public can’t attend, having to do with real estate negotiations, and so on. But the ordinance makes those meetings as transparent as possible. The privacy of closed meeting can be abused if they aren’t monitored and limited.
One interesting, contemporary provision prohibits the private use of texting and so on by council members during meetings (because they could be texting each other), using cell phones and other devices, unless the texting is visible to the public immediately.
A provision not having to do with government transparency is part of the ordinance. A section that pretty much bows to Mike Ceremello’s concerns prohibits employees such as city managers from taking part in salary negotiations in closed sessions when those salary changes could affect their own pay. This would prevent a conflict of interest.
Other sections of the ordinance specify that public notices in general be easy to understand (without all those pesky governmental acronyms such as EIR and ABAG) and that public records in general be readily and easily accessible. It’s a well-known delaying tactic to deny council members (and the public) information until the last possible moment, and then sometimes charging onerous copying fees and unnecessarily censoring portions of documents.
The ordinance provides that many documents and messages be available on the city’s web site.
Interestingly, the ordinance has the mayor, during his or her annual State of the City speech (which would be seen online and via television), required to disclose the previous year’s complaints from the public under the ordinance.
Police records would also be as open to the public as is legally possible. In some cities I’ve lived in, the police and CHP seem to make decisions about releasing information at their whim. The Sunshine Ordinance says there needs to be actual legal reasons preventing the release of certain law enforcement information. After those legal reasons have expired, the information should be available.
One of the things that seems to bother some local officials the most is the ordinance’s establishment of an Open Governance Commission (or Sunshine Commission) of three members, appointed by the council. They would review citizen complaints concerning the ordinance. If the legal advice to them by the city’s regular attorney was under the cloud of a conflict of interest, they could hire an outside lawyer using the city attorney’s budget. I’m assuming that this commission’s deliberations would also be open to the public!
One thing about the ordinance is a lack of enforcement teeth in making sure the ordinance is followed. In only one case – when a city staff member hinders the dissemination of information – is a misdemeanor declared.
I have a personal bone to pick with the city about releasing information and I’m not sure the ordinance would prevent it in the future. When Genentech came to the city around 2007 with the idea of building a building and doing research here, a non-disclosure agreement was negotiated which blocked the public from knowing the terms of the conditional use permit granted by the city. This permit specifies what sort of activities are allowed to be conducted at a business site. Why did Genentech want non-disclosure? The whole thing is mysterious to me. The company, at 2727 Fitzpatrick Way, has no company sign or logo adjacent to or on their building, and the company’s web site doesn’t even list Dixon as one of their locations. I have my own idea as to what they’re doing there, but I won’t speculate here. If you work there or have knowledge, I’d appreciate hearing from you in a confidential way as to what kind of research or whatever is going on there.
The only provisions of the ordinance touching on this non-disclosure subject at all say that legal advisors to Dixon can’t agree to restrict disclosure of settlement provisions of legal matters.
Sometimes cities are so eager to bring in prestigious companies like Genentech that they go too far in giving in to the companies’ demands – such as non-disclosure. I’m disappointed that the Sunshine Ordinance doesn’t specifically prohibit non-disclosure of agreements with new businesses.
All in all, everything I see in the ordinance is positive. One thing’s for sure – it means more work for city staff and the city attorney. Other cities have enacted similar ordinances, so this isn’t something unique to Dixon.
One of the reasons people like Ourania Riddle would actually like the ordinance to be passed by ballot is that the only way it could be changed or removed would be by another vote of the people. If a portion was found to be illegal, only that specific portion could be removed.
If you have the time, read the ordinance yourself. Politics in Dixon continues to be interesting.