Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | July 31, 2007

One less chance to ensure open government

I was saddened to read that Planning Commissioner Joan Spencer dropped out of the race for Gilroy City Council.

Spencer’s departure means that one less council candidate who understands the importance of open government is in the race.

Spencer was one of the city council and mayoral candidates to give the right answer – “Yes” – to a question posed by a Gilroy Dispatch snap poll. The question was, “Should meetings between GUSD trustees and city council representatives with area developers to try to solve the school facility funding crisis be open to the public?”

The issue arose because elected City of Gilroy and Gilroy Unified School District officials were set to meet in closed session with developers to explore ways developers could help GUSD close a $15 million facilities budget gap. Officials agreed to the developers’ request that the meeting be closed – until The Dispatch pointed out that a closed meeting would violate the Brown Act, California’s open meetings law.

After a 15-minute “private conference” (how that is different than a meeting?), the meeting was rescheduled for Aug. 6. Lawyers are studying the Brown Act and case law before they dispense opinions on whether the next meeting should be opento the public or should shut them out.

Thus, the snap poll question, which should have elicited an easy and enthusiastic “Yes” from each candidate. But incumbent Mayor Al Pinheiro and city council candidate and Planning Commissioner Tim Day, incredibly, said “No.”

Pinheiro’s response sounded positively paternalistic to me: “I think we need a venue where developers can say what they need to say without having every word out in the paper.”

The paper plays an important role in helping voters keep tabs on what elected officials are doing on their behalf with their money. I have to wonder why that seems to bother Pinheiro so much.

Day said, “That way the developers have an opportunity to talk frankly. The business interests involved have public images to maintain.”

I have to wonder why Day is apparently more concerned about businesses’ public relations issues than about Gilroyans’ right to monitor their elected officials’ activities.

The Brown Act, according to a booklet published by the California Attorney General’s office, allows closed meetings in the following cases:

• Personnel – “… to consider appointment, employment, evaluation of performance, discipline or dismissal of an employee.”

• Public security – “… with law enforcement or security personnel concerning the security of public buildings and services.”

• Pending litigation – “… to receive advice from its legal counsel concerning existing litigation, initiating litigation, or situations involving a significant exposure to litigation.”

• Labor negotiations – “… with its negotiator to consider labor negotiations with represented and unrepresented employees.”

• Real property negotiations – “… with its negotiator to consider price and terms of payment in connection with the purchase, sale, exchange or lease of real property.”

Clearly, meetings with developers to try to solve GUSD’s facilities funding crisis do not meet any of these criteria.

A willingness to tolerate and even endorse governmental secrecy by city council and mayoral candidates ought to concern Gilroy voters when they head to the polls this November.

It ought to concern all voters in all elections.

The almost-closed city-school district-developers meeting is the latest in a series of questionable open government practices among local governmental agencies recently.

A quick look at the scandals swirling around the Bush Administration – refusing to disclose details about an energy task force, enacting secret programs to spy on Americans, shrouding the firings of US attorneys and even the investigation into the death of Pat Tillman in “executive privilege” claims – shows that the problem’s not just local.

Our government is founded on the concepts of the public holding elected officials accountable and the co-equal branches of government acting as checks on abuses of power via oversight over the actions of the other branches.

Whether they’re local issues, like building schools, or national issues, like investigating serious allegations that the Justice Department has been politicized, in order to function our democracy requires that citizens and other branches of government have the ability to keep tabs on what officials are doing.

Secrecy makes accountability and oversight impossible and, thus, gravely endangers our democracy.

As citizens, we must require that officials conduct our business openly. The first step is electing officials who understand why that’s so important. It’s too bad that Gilroyans just lost such a candidate with Joan Spencer’s withdrawal from the city council race.

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