Councilman pushes for open

After he is sworn in Monday night, City Councilman-elect Perry
Woodward will hit the ground running by introducing a comprehensive
open government ordinance he promised voters on the campaign
trail.
After he is sworn in Monday night, City Councilman-elect Perry Woodward will hit the ground running by introducing a comprehensive open government ordinance he promised voters on the campaign trail.

The sunshine ordinance, as it’s called, will supersede the state’s current open government law, known as the Brown Act, and make it easier for residents to get government documents without filing Public Records Act requests, which can take weeks.

Woodward proposes to do this, in part, by creating the Open Government Commission: a five-member body of transparency-minded residents appointed by the council. They will facilitate records requests and report to the council periodically, Woodward said.

Avoiding secrecy also includes taping closed sessions, which state and local laws allow for legal and personnel matters and union negotiations. Members of the public could review the tapes after whatever matter is resolved, Woodward said, and this would discourage forays into topics “that ought not be discussed in closed sessions.”

But Councilman Dion Bracco said the whole idea is a slippery slope.

“I think (Woodward) needs to sit through a couple closed sessions first to see if he wants that information out in the public. That would change the whole dynamic of the closed session because (council members) would have to be careful of what they said,” Bracco said, referring to the fact that the unions could view council tapes and adjust their negotiation strategies accordingly.

Still, Bracco said he would work with Woodward to mold his ordinance for Gilroy after seeing more of what other cities such as San Jose and Milpitas have done. Bracco cautioned, though, that the new Open Government Commission might be like a body of Maytag repairmen with not much to do.

City Clerk Shawna Freels will have plenty to do, though, if the ordinance passes as is.

The 31-page ordinance calls for more detailed agendas and record-keeping and requires that councilmen submit any topics of conversation to Freels before meetings. This would end the current practice of council members broaching topics off the cuff at the end of meetings.

Within 12 months of the ordinance’s passage, Freels would also have to compile an index of documents for each department, agency, task force, commission and elected officer. Department heads, who must receive open government training under the ordinance, would also become part-time liaisons, updating their particular Web sites regularly with documents and happenings and answering residents’ questions on where they could find certain department materials.

“If you wanted to know what was going on in the community development department, you could call its director or someone who has been designated,” Woodward said. “But now, if you want the Hecker Pass Specific Plan, who the heck do you call? Well, this ordinance would allow you to go onto Web site and see who that person is, making (City Hall) more like library with an index of documents.”

The ordinance also requires that requests for public records be fulfilled within 24 hours unless the department needs more time for a specific reason. Woodward said this will allow residents to avoid waiting 10 days to receive a response under the PRA.

Not only should residents know everything that will be discussed unless the council votes to allow an impromptu item during a meeting, but Woodward said those who cannot make it in person also deserve a voice. That is why Woodward’s ordinance requires the council to answer questions from residents who cannot make it to City Hall but who will not be able to call in during televised sessions.

Residents should also see how the council deals with the city’s 42 top-level employees.

The ordinance mandates that the salaries and benefits of council members and the city administrator also be discussed in open session.

Woodward said he specifically wanted to end the practice of the city administrator, who heads the 42-member, non-unionized group, acting as its informal representative during closed session negotiations. City Administrator Jay Baksa did that earlier this year, though he absolved the part of his contract that linked his salary with those he was representing.

Aside from this, the requirements for convening a closed session do not change much under Woodward’s ordinance, said Councilman-elect Bob Dillon.

“Generally, the ordinance is favorable to me, but I do have some questions about costs,” Dillon said, referring to, among other things, whether the new commissioners will get paid or not.

The council will also have to vote in an open session whether it will go into a closed meeting with the city attorney. The council must assert its attorney-client privilege via a vote, not an assumption, Woodward said.

Not only this, but the city’s attorney, San Jose-based Berliner Cohen, “should be outspoken in giving advice on the validity of legal compliance on all matters,” the ordinance reads. The city attorney, like the commissioners, should be proactive and seek ways to indulge document-seeking people rather than seeking ways to deny them, Woodward said.

“(Berliner Cohen is) very aggressive about finding a way to shield the city’s business from the public,” Woodward said. “Jay designs processes and procedures to manipulate outcomes and he uses secrecy as a way to do it. To this day, I, as an incoming council member, have no idea who the four police chief finalists are (that the council will vote on Dec. 17). It’s crazy.”

Baksa said staff will review the ordinance and councilmen will have to digest its recommendations before anything is adopted, perhaps by January or February, Woodward said.

Mayor Al Pinheiro and Councilman Craig Gartman could not be reached for comment, and multiple council members did not return calls for comment, but Woodward said he has confidence.

“Everybody on the council, in one way or another, has voiced support for the concept of open government, so I would hope that it will be well received,” Woodward said. “Open government means different things to different people, and this is what it means to me, so I’m hoping this is what it means to the other council members, as well.”

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