Controlling City Hall in the Post-Newspaper Era

Terry Francke is general counsel for Californians Aware and Voice of OC's open government consultant.

Terry Francke is general counsel for Californians Aware and Voice of OC's open government consultant.

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Wednesday, March 31, 2010 |The maxim “You can’t fight city hall” can be taken to mean a variety of things, but its core message is to discourage, implying, so don’t even try.

That message is obviously wrong, of course. People win struggles with city halls literally — and government institutions generally — all the time through lawsuits, ballot initiatives, recalls, or state or federal legislation. The exercise of classic First Amendment collective rights such as picketing, gathering and presenting signed petitions, or showing up to protest at public meetings still have political force as well.

But having to “fight” government practices and policies in reaction often means that the smarter approach — monitoring government decisions as they develop, gathering facts showing government performance, publicizing what’s being learned and citizens’ comment about it — has broken down. This cluster of watchdog functions has for two centuries been the defining civic role of newspapers. But newspapers are not what they used to be, and will never be again.

People need no longer rely on them in searching for most goods, services and opportunities traditionally marketed in classified advertising — internet sites do that. In most cases, people need not even see a newspaper to read most or all of its most costly, time-sensitive, precious product — locally gathered news stories published and updated on a free Internet website.

The consequences of these and other market forces for what newspapers do and how they do it has been devastating: bureau closings; general staff cutbacks; early buyouts for many of the most experienced and valuable reporters, editors and columnists; and consolidation of editing functions and beat assignments among region-wide networks of nominally independent but chain-owned newspapers.

But the power of the Internet that has done so much to erode the exclusive news and information channel of newspapers has also made the watchdog functions noted above far more available to anyone with a connection to the Web.

Many of the most central local government agencies maintain websites, for example, where they post their public meeting agendas in advance and minutes afterward. Some — and this is likely to be the majority trend — link their posted agendas and minutes to reports and other documents that will be or have been considered at a meeting, and even provide streaming video of current and past meetings.

Much if not most information about what government has done, is doing or plans to do is not showcased in meetings of its official bodies, of course. But not only can e-mail be used to request particular paper or electronic documents under the California Public Records Act, for example, but the movement forward under both state and federal legislation is to post certain accountability-related documents on the internet routinely and proactively.

The Internet has thus made the first two watchdog functions — monitoring government decisions as they develop and gathering facts showing government performance — available to all, at little or no cost and far greater convenience.

But although few people have either the time, concentration or motivation to pursue more than one or two issues by steadily watching and questioning government, the same technology has enabled those who do have such training, temperament and experience — journalists largely, but not exclusively — to create Internet platforms for the other two watchdog functions as well: publicizing what’s being learned and citizens’ comment about it.

That is where organizations like Voice of OC and similar nonprofit public affairs news and comment forums play a role: supplementing the watchdog functions of local newspapers whose commercial base has so eroded.

But Voice of OC is going one step farther by performing a watchdog function no commercial media have even attempted: steadily educating its community about the transparency rights of individuals under the law and how, for example, to understand and use the Brown Act and the California Public Records Act with effectiveness and confidence.

In this capacity Californians Aware, which I serve as general counsel, is partnering with Voice of OC to answer your questions, offer suggestions and help cut through much of the needless mystery that can frustrate your efforts to control “city hall.”

Fighting government is not the priority. Controlling it is. As stated in the Brown Act’s preamble: “The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

Terry Francke is Voice of OC’s open government consultant. You can reach him And add your voice with a letter to the editor.


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