Francke: Sunshine Week, Your Right to Know

In honor of our national celebration called Sunshine Week, here are ten ways you can advance your rights to know, speak, write and publish about issues that matter—where you live.

You don’t have to be a lawyer, lobbyist or policy wonk to make improvements in how open your city council, county supervisors, school board or special district directors’ meetings are, or in public access to government information. Californians Aware will be happy to help and to report the results of your project(s). But why not inform your community of your experiences? Doing so would contribute to an interesting blog.

1. PUBLIC MEETINGS MONITORING

Ask your local unit of the League of Women Voters of California if it maintains an Observer Corps to monitor local agency meetings for proper procedure and candid disclosure, and if so, volunteer to join it or partner with it. If not, use the League publication Observing Your Government in Action along with CalAware’s Citizen Watchdog guide to write your own reports (see item 10) on how well a given council or board is keeping its decision-making in public view.

2. PUBLIC AGENDAS DECODING

As a supplement to the reports above or as a standalone service, work with your region’s unit of the Society of Professional Journalists to recruit a panel of retired reporters and/or editors to convert local government meeting agendas into plain English (or some other language used by many in your community). Call it “What’s the Hidden Headline Here?” in each agenda. Report the results (see item 10).

3. PUBLIC RECORDS REQUESTING

Ask your city, county, school district or special district—or California state agency—to provide access for you to review all Public Records Act requests received in the past month/quarter/year, and the written responses to them (not the records themselves). Report interesting findings (see item 10). You don’t have to request copies—but can.

4. LEGISLATIVE REFORM

Ask your California Assembly Member and/or Senator if she or he would introduce—or co-author—a bill to address one or more improvements in open government or free speech laws suggested by CalAware’s priority list. Report the response (see item 10).

5. LOCAL TRANSPARENCY POLICY

Review CalAware’s sunshine ordinance “how to” guide and draw up your own list of improvements for meetings and public information policies of your local council or board. Ask CalAware to check your list for legal feasibility. Circulate a petition asking the council or board to adopt the policy as an ordinance (cities or counties) or bylaw (school or special districts). Report the response (see item 10).

6. POLITICAL CANDIDATE PLEDGE

Ask those who pull papers for any electoral office to take CalAware’s Sunshine Pledge—or explain why not. Report your results (see item 10).

7. POLICE TRANSPARENCY COMMITMENT

Ask your sheriff and/or police chief to adopt and post CalAware’s Model Law Enforcement Public Information Policy or to inform the public what information they can expect to get—or explain why not. Report your results (see item 10).

8. STUDENT SPEECH / PRESS PROTECTION

Ask to see your school board’s written publications code governing student communications, required to be adopted by Education Code Section 48907. If there is none, remind the board that the adoption is mandatory, and inform CalAware.

9.WHISTLEBLOWER PROTECTIONS 

Suggest to anyone considering notifying the relevant authorities of improper or illegal conduct by their fellow workers or employer—or by anyone seeking to defraud the government—that he or she review CalAware’s Top 10 Things to Consider about Whistleblower Risks and Protections.

10. PUBLISHING YOUR WORK

Start a blog to share your findings and observations with the community on issues the commercial media aren’t talking about—or are getting wrong. Check with CalAware if you have questions about your First Amendment or freedom of information rights.

Terry Franck is the General Counsel for CalAware and the Open Government & Public Records Consultant for Voice of OC.  Terry  has a 38-year history of helping journalists, citizens and public officials understand and use their First Amendment and open government rights. With CalAware, Francke has authored comprehensive and authoritative guidebooks to California law on access to government meetings and public records and the news gathering and publication rights of journalists. Focusing on these issues in public forum law, he supervises CalAware’s legislative and litigation initiatives; conducts workshops on legal compliance; helps design public records audits; supports local sunshine ordinance drafting efforts; writes CalAware Today, a blog on current developments and proposals in the law and best practices; and answers countless queries by phone and e-mail from citizens, journalists, public officials and employees, and lawyers. Francke previously served 14 years as executive director and general counsel to the California First Amendment Coalition, after a 10-year post as legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association. He has served as an advisory panel member to the National Center on Courts and the Media; taught journalism law at the Department of Communication at Stanford University; and served as an expert contributor to the 1994 major revisions to the Ralph M. Brown Act and the 2004 ballot proposition making open government a basic right of citizens under the California Constitution. Francke is a 1967 graduate of the University of Notre Dame and a 1979 graduate of McGeorge School of Law, University of the Pacific. Prior to his legal career, Francke worked as a weekly newspaper editor and in military and local government public affairs positions.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue or others please contact Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears at TSears@voiceofoc.org