People expect journalists to avoid taking sides publicly in politics.
But with a couple of areas, I disobey that rule: freedom of information and the First Amendment.
And I’m grateful that hundreds, maybe thousands of journalists throughout the United States do the same.
California and a number of its cities and counties have some of the strongest sunshine laws in the country. And for that, a good deal of the credit goes to journalists, their employers and organizations such as SPJ.
That said, I must admit that keeping government agencies and officials accountable is more easily said than done.
Getting sunshine laws passed can be a pitched battle. Moreover, regardless of how well those laws are crafted, politicians and bureaucrats constantly look for ways around them.
A Sunshine Amendment to the California Constitution will go before the state’s voters on Nov. 2.
It’s not the strongest, most far-reaching measure possible — most notably, it doesn’t touch the legislature — but if passed, it would nonetheless be an improvement over current law.
Getting the initiative on the ballot wasn’t easy.
Attorneys Terry Francke, who recently left the California First Amendment Coalition to form Californians Aware, and Tom Newton and Jim Ewert of the California Newspaper Publishers Association spent three years butting heads with government and public employee union lobbyists. They accepted several compromises in order to muster the two-thirds majorities necessary in California’s Senate and Assembly to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot via the legislature.
Meanwhile, numerous media outlets, journalists and civil rights advocates back the measure bill that, if passed by voters, would overturn restrictions that the California Department of Corrections — the agency that runs the state’s prison system — imposed in 1996 on journalists and authors trying to contact inmates.
This is the fourth try to get the measure on the ballot, and it appears close to receiving final legislative approval.
The first three passed the legislature with overwhelming, bipartisan majorities. Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed the first one, and Gov. Gray Davis nixed the next two. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office has been silent on how he would treat the ballot measure.
Francke, Newton and Ewert have been invaluable FOI and First Amendment advocates, as have certain champions in the legislature — in the case of the proposed Sunshine Amendment, President Pro-tem Sen. John Burton, D-San Francisco, and Sen. Bruce McPherson R-Santa Cruz, who co-sponsored the Sunshine Amendment, and Burton’s legislative aide Rodger Dillon.
Having open-government laws on the books is no guarantee of sunshine.
For a dozen-plus years, Managing Editor J. W. August has run the investigative unit at KGTV-10, ABC’s San Diego affiliate.
“I have run up against about every obstacle one faces in newsgathering,” he said. “I’ve encountered territorial clerks and city attorneys with too much time on their hands. I’ve been forced to become an aggressive user of the federal Freedom of Information Act and the California Public Records Act. It is not enough.”
In one instance, the Sweetwater School District “fought us on a case involving a football coach who tapped into the computer system and changed some of his players’ grades, or maybe he enlisted a student to help him do it,” August said. “The school district considered the matter handled and was reluctant to give up any more information. Officials there claimed it was a personnel issue (which state and local sunshine laws exempt from disclosure). We went to court, got the information, did the story and recovered our costs. But this can be a long and tortuous road. That’s why I advocate for more openness before the fact and believe it is important that transparency is policy, not an afterthought.”
In late July, the Contra Costa County Times published a survey comparing the amount of time it took the county and each of its cities to provide financial disclosure forms and the contract of each entity’s top administrator.
“The cities of San Ramon and Richmond never made the documents available,” the Times reported. “Of those entities that did, Contra Costa County ranked near the bottom, taking 19 days for staff members to retrieve the information. Only (the city of) Martinez finished worse, with a 27-day turnaround.”
The survey chart “also indicated that Contra Costa is one of three agencies that asked why the individual wanted the records,” the newspaper reported.
In San Francisco, we have our own battles, notwithstanding a Sunshine Ordinance that is considered one of the nation’s strongest.
Francke drafted the original language in 1993, and Bruce B. Brugmann, longtime SPJ member and co-founder and then president of CFAC, worked with key members of the city board of supervisors, eventually winning passage and the signature of then-Mayor Frank Jordan.
The ordinance includes a provision establishing a permanent, 11-member task force to monitor city officials’ and agencies’ compliance with the local and state open-government laws. Three of the seats on the task force are reserved for journalists, one nominated by SPJ. (In fairness, I must inform readers that I hold the SPJ-nominated seat.)
Sunshine is one of a handful of issues that Brugmann’s feisty newspaper, the weekly Bay Guardian, throughout the years has made a crusade. And while passage of the 1993 ordinance was a major victory, it wasn’t good enough.
City officials quickly found and used numerous loopholes.
So Brugmann marshaled local access advocates and, despite opposition from most city politicians, big business and even the San Francisco Chronicle — before Hearst Corp. acquired it — put an initiative on the ballot that won, 58-42, in November 1999.
Most recently, the task force conducted a two-year-long review of the ordinance, asked the board of supervisors to put a package of amendments on the Nov. 2 ballot and then got the sponsoring supervisor to yank it because a board committee had inserted additional provisions that the task force found unpalatable.
CNPA’s Newton offered some other tips on how journalists can get involved in promoting sunshine and the First Amendment:
• “Access and support your state press association’s efforts to influence the legislature. In California, folks can stay abreast of FOI issues by going to www.cnpa.com and by signing up to get an e-mail version of the CNPA Legislative Bulletin, published pretty much each week the legislature is in session.
• “Write about access successes and failures. So often, journalists internalize, rather than write about, their inability to access public records. About two years ago, CNPA began honoring stories relating to freedom of information in its Better Newspaper contest.
•”Audit government agencies’ compliance with open-meeting and public-records laws.
• “Attend statewide FOI conferences, like CFAC’s First Amendment Assembly (set this year for Oct. 8-9 at the University of California, Berkeley).
• “Honor those who work for transparent government, and hammer those who fall below the line. Those few legislators and public officials who give a damn — Sens. Burton; Debra Bowen, D-Redondo Beach; and Byron Sher, D-Palo Alto; and former Sen. Quentin Kopp — should be encouraged and the rest held accountable.”
Richard Knee, a San Francisco-based freelance journalist, is on the FOI Committee of SPJ’s Northern California Pro Chapter. He joined SPJ in 1972. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.