Nearly four years ago, Santa Ana’s city council passed the Sunshine Ordinance, one of the most comprehensive government transparency laws in the country. The ordinance was developed and advocated by for a coalition of residents and organizations, in the hopes that it would address systemic problems that kept residents in the dark with regards to major development and budget decisions. Its passage marked a significant turning point in Santa Ana, with the city council taking the initiative to encourage open and transparent processes with residents in mind.
Despite this step forward, Santa Ana continues to have an uneven record on transparency in general.
There’s no sunshine in the investigation of the Santa Ana police officers’ recent shenanigans at a medical marijuana dispensary, in which police counsel first tried to block the use of a video recording as evidence in the case, and even now are allowed to hide key details about the investigation.
As the City attempts to write an Economic Development Strategic Plan, a task force of entirely business representatives holds advisory meetings that are closed to the public. Yet the Council still hasn’t formed a similar process for community members to provide input, despite committing to do so in 2015’s Wellness Resolution.
Against this context, 2012’s Sunshine Ordinance may seem myopic and its achievements insignificant.
But the Sunshine Ordinance and its provisions have inspired the beginnings of change at City Hall. Because of Sunshine, the City engaged in a five-year Strategic Planning process and holds biannual budget presentations, educating residents on City administration and incorporating resident feedback. Getting the City to divest from its partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the jail has been an ongoing battle that was facilitated by the Sunshine Ordinance. Overall, there is a growing culture at City Hall of valuing community engagement, even if it’s unevenly applied in practice.
These positive changes demonstrate that Sunshine is more than just a set of arbitrary and particular legislative requirements. It’s an approach to government that both ensures fair processes and empowers residents, staff, and officials to work together to build a better Santa Ana. The 2012 ordinance can’t shed light on all public mischief, but it is a good first step. As residents and constituents, we must build on the Sunshine Ordinance and continue pushing for a more open, more inclusive Santa Ana both in legislation and in culture.
Clara Turner is a research and policy analyst with Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development.