During a rare moment of rest and relaxation, I was browsing through the vast archives of TED Talks videos and came across this one by Heather Brooke, a freelance journalist, freedom of information campaigner and professor of journalism at City University London.
In 2005, she filed one of the very first requests under the UK’s Freedom of Information Act, asking to see the expense reports of Members of Parliament. The request was blocked, modified and refiled, and blocked again… but the years-long quest to view expense documents, and the subsequent investigation, led to 2009’s parliamentary expenses scandal. The scandal led to the first forced resignation of the Speaker of the House in 300 years.
If your oh-too-hectic-life won’t allow you 18 minutes to view something far better than the singing or dancing competition you TIVO-ed the other night, then bookmark this post and come back later when things have settled down. Here’s Heather Brooke’s TED Talk.
Okay, here’s where I’m going with this. On November 6th Brea voters approved Measure T (Accountability Act) but rejected Measure U (Open Governance Act). Frankly, if I were to have wagered on a possible split decision, I would have reversed this completely. Here’s why…
The likelihood that most voters would wade through the details of Measure T and recognize the importance of capping runaway senior staff salaries and the perks/benefits going to council members seemed slim to me. What happened is that the brief description on the ballot , “Shall the ordinance ‘A Measure Regarding Limits on City Administrative and Legislative Compensation Applicable to the City of Brea’ be adopted?” made the measure an easy slam dunk.
On the other hand, Measure U’s description, “Shall the Ordinance ‘A Measure adding Procedural Requirements Related to Public Records Act Requests Made to the City of Brea and Modifying Open Meeting Law Requirements Applicable to the City of Brea’ be adopted?” did more to confuse voters than clarify the initiative’s intent.
Had it said, “Provide greater and faster access to public records including more robust self search capabilities, and require that all open meetings (including study sessions) be recorded as a permanent public record of the business transacted.” Measure U might have enjoyed similar results as Measure T… but it didn’t.
Good News, Bad News.
Good. Since the initiative process on these measures began almost two years ago, the City of Brea recognized the impending democratization of information.
The availability of technology light years beyond Gutenberg’s press, a fully connected system of information management was not only economically feasible but, thanks to increased demand for full disclosure of information, was unavoidable.
Bad. The result? Brea is in the process of implementing the Laserfiche system, likely the most lauded of it’s kind today.
Unfortunately, the search algorithms and scans available to the general public make self search about as difficult as possible.
Executing a successful document search the first time out is a little like trying to nail Jello to a tree. The odds of one stumbling across the perfect search term are slim and none.
Instead of providing a tutorial or FAQ of sorts helping citizens find what they’re looking for, it remains extremely difficult for all but the most sophisticated researcher to find information responsive to their inquiry.
Because Measure U “failed” to pass, the door may have been left open for the city to slow down progress on implementing the Laserfiche system, or at least modifying it in a manner to make it more user friendly.
Politicians generally do not subscribe to this type of fully connected information management system. Historically, they prefer to keep their constituents in the dark as much as possible, for as long as possible.
More Good News, Bad News.
Good. With the passage of Measure T, Breans now have some assurance that salaries, perks and benefits will be restricted in a way to keep the City of Brea from looking more and more like the City of Bell. Current council members and staff will be frozen at today’s levels and future council members and staff will have to adjust to the limits prescribed in the initiative.
Bad. There are already rumblings coming from City Attorney Jim Markman and City Manager Tim O’Donnell that they will “fight” certain components of Measure T that they feel are illegal or unconstitutional.
Really? Are you kidding me?
After wasting over $80,000 taxpayer dollars to cover up their incompetence regarding election law, they’re lining up at the border to make an assault on what the Brea voters have just clearly said they want.
The originator’s of these measures have already gone on record as being willing to sit down at the negotiating table to iron out differences rather than seeing this turn to very expensive litigation to reach a conclusion.
Not the best news for Richards, Watson & Gershon’s bottom line. Over the last 30+ years they’ve grown accustomed to milking the cash cow that is Brea.
Brea voters put it on the ballot!
Brea voters approved the measure!
Brea voters have made their desires known!
The least Council could do is adopt the measure… but they probably won’t without either cutting the heart out of it (which is illegal, see Proposition 59, November, 2004) or just flat refusing to adopt it in any form (as the council in Murietta did).
Why Measure U Should Have Passed.
Transparency in government generates accountability. Transparency allows citizens of a democracy to control government, reducing corruption, bribery and other malfeasance.
An open, transparent government allows for the dissemination of information, which in turn helps produce greater knowledge and societal progress.
Along with having an interest in seeing greater access to information, I am also concerned about protecting citizens’ privacy so they are not exposed to negative consequences or retribution — which we’ve most commonly seen in the arrogant and dismissive attitude some council members and staff have taken with those who have spoken out against policies and decisions during “Matters From The Audience.”
Anyone thinking this is over is fooling themselves.
I urge Breans to keep a wary eye on the progress of adopting the substance of Measure T and further implementing that which is fulfilling the intent of Measure U.
This is not the time to become complacent.
We should prosecute and punish official’s for blocking full disclosure to the public, or willfully attempting to dismantle what the public has approved, with the same vigor that government persecutes citizens who dare to challenge, who dare to object, who dare to speak out.
It’s our job to exposed failings of our local political system, while pointing out the secrets of information control and censorship that lie at the heart of a city government that has operated for years without sufficient public scrutiny.