Under the proposed Sunshine Ordinance, there will be more City Council meetings and more extensive public comment. Photo: John C. Osborn

The citizen committee behind the Berkeley Sunshine Ordinance on the November ballot has sent city officials a lawyer’s letter threatening a lawsuit unless changes are made to the wording of both the ballot question and the city attorney’s published analysis.

The proposed Sunshine Ordinance establishes new meeting and agenda requirements for the Berkeley City Council, the Rent Stabilization Board and the city’s many commissions. It also creates increased disclosure requirements and creates a new Sunshine Commission to monitor and enforce the ordinance. Among the issues in contention between the current wording and the committee’s desires is whether the cost — estimated by the city at $1.5 million annually — can or should be included, and whether the new commission’s authority to sue the city should be specified in the ballot question.

Bradley Hertz at The Sutton Law Firm writes, “In order to avoid litigation, we demand that the ballot question and City Attorney’s Analysis be amended forthwith to cure the fatal flaws that now exist.”

“The committee is hoping to get the remedy asked for in the letter,” said Josh Wolf, a member of the Berkeley Sunshine Committee. “We want something that is fair and not biased, as opposed to something that might be accurate, but focuses on the elements that might lead people to oppose the measure.”

“It’s common to have an exchange to change the wording,” said city attorney Zach Cowan. “We release the city attorney analysis so more people can comment on it. More eyes are better. I welcome it.”

The ordinance’s provisions include: public comment at meetings extended to three minutes (currently two minutes or one minute is provided); unlimited new items can be placed on agendas through a petition process, requiring 100 signatures for City Council and 50 signatures for commissions; “all supporting documents” are required for all agenda items (which city staff have estimated would require an additional 2,200 pages per council meeting); at least 14 additional City Council meetings would be held annually; video transmission is required of all legislative bodies, including boards and commissions; a new “Community Engagement Process” is instituted for all matters having “significant citywide or widespread impact”; and the Sunshine Commission is empowered to sue the city as part of its enforcement role.

Proponents of the ordinance have taken particular issue with the city’s estimate of its costs. The letter sent to Cowan yesterday calls for the financial implications to be termed “uncertain”, rather than the $1.5 million in the current ballot wording. The city’s published spreadsheet of costs, in fact, adds to a total of $2 million in annual costs. Wolf said there had been no explanation from the city on the reduction of $500,000 other than as a response to proponents’ protests.

Cowan explained that some of the calculation was “to a penny”, but other costs were necessarily estimated based on judgement. “Will there be three lawsuits a year or four?” he said.

You can compare Cowan’s analysis and the Sunshine Committee’s proposed alternative analysis.

Op/Ed: How much is democracy worth in Berkeley? [05.14.12]
Berkeley passes Sunshine Ordinance [02.16.11]

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...