Berkeley Old City Hall. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Berkeley resident David M. Wilson is keeping his fingers crossed that a City Council work session tonight will take Berkeley one step further towards a more transparent government.

Wilson sits on a five-strong Citizen Sunshine Committee and has been lobbying to have Berkeley adopt a local “sunshine ordinance”, a law that would increase residents’ access to city government. “We want a law implementing state directives requiring open meetings with public participation, and guaranteeing open access to public records,” says Wilson. “The council has a vested interest in making critical decisions out of the public eye — at the water cooler or coffee machine. There’s an iron curtain around intra-staff memos,” he adds.

At tonight’s 5.30 p.m. meeting the council will consider the implications and components of local standards. There have been several sunshine ordinance drafts over the past few years — you can read the background on Berkeley city manager’s website — but so far no actual ordinance.

As the city manager explains it, California’s Brown Act and Public Records Act make basic guarantees to everyone in the state regarding access to public meetings and documents, but local jurisdictions may expand those guarantees by adopting laws of their own.

Wilson hopes the most recent version of an ordinance, drafted by the citizen committee, will be placed on the November 2012 ballot as an initiative. Signatures on the petition are currently being verified by the Registrar of Voters. “I would like to see staff take the citizen draft as their baseline,” he says. Wilson is happy to see the city improve on the draft — whether on efficiency and/or cost — just as long as the process moves forward.

A staff analysis of the initiative ordinance, dated May 18 2010, claimed that giving open access to citizens would cost the city $3 million per year. Wilson for one does not believe the financial outlay would need to be anywhere near as high — citing for reference the $1m allocated to copying charges. “We all want to move away from hard copy, surely,” he says.

City staff will return to the council in January with a draft ordinance based on the comments at tonight’s work session.

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...