Ballot measure to increase government transparency may incur costs

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This November, Berkeley residents will vote on a ballot measure aiming to increase transparency in local government, despite an existing ordinance adopted just last year that planned to accomplish similar goals.

The Sunshine Ordinance — or city ballot Measure U — seeks to grant citizens access to the same information and records available to city officials as well as provide a sufficient opportunity to comment on issues at open meetings before decisions are finalized.

Though the city’s earlier Open Government Ordinance was adopted in 2011 to meet similar goals of increased public record and meeting access, the new ordinance would replace the current ordinance and create a new oversight committee that could enact harsher punishments — including a lawsuit as a last resort — for officials who do not comply with the new provisions.

“You waste your time lodging a complaint because nothing happens,” said Sunshine Ordinance Commission chair Dean Metzger. “The Sunshine Ordinance has more teeth in it and will get more results.”

The current ordinance cannot enforce because it only creates an advisory commission, he said.

If passed by voters, the ordinance will mandate that legislative decisions be made only in public meetings. Residents would also be allowed to place issues on the City Council meeting agenda, and any person attending the meeting will be given additional time to speak on agenda items.

Additionally, the measure would stipulate that closed council sessions must feature a public session to air public comments about the issues, as enforced by an advisory commission on open government issues that will be appointed by the City Council.

“It’s just really a bizarre, over-the-top measure that’s put together by a lot of people who are paranoid about what’s happening in Berkeley,” said Mayor Tom Bates.

Bates equated the new ordinance with “sunburn,” saying it would be detrimental to the city by diverting money and city labor away from an already overburdened legislative system. The measure is estimated to cost the city up to $1 million to $2 million a year, he said.

“I am all for hearing residents speak, but when you have 100 people show up and you are trying to make a decision, you want to hear from people, and you want them to express themselves, but you have to make a decision in a timely manner,” he said.

Berkeley City Auditor Ann-Marie Hogan said she understands why citizens feel like their voices are not being heard but agreed with Bates by saying that passing this measure would strain the city’s finances.

“I am worried about the way it is going to slow down decision making and create more work for the staff and city,” she said.

Supporters of Measure U say the current ordinance is not enforced and does not hold city officials accountable for “violating citizens’ rights,” a statement released by the Yes on Measure U campaign reads.

“The fact that it may take two months for the commissions to make recommendations to the council is not a sunshine issue — that is the commission’s problem,” said former mayor and Measure U proponent Shirley Dean.

Dean added that the estimated cost of the measure was based on a 2010 plan that has since inflated and does not reflect how much it will actually cost Berkeley.

But if the measure passes, the oversight commission would be mandated to run independently of the council. The hypothetical commission would oversee all levels of lawmaking, from the city committees to the mayor’s office, Dean said.

“There are continuing problems of secrecy, especially at the mayor level of city government — even the City Council members do not get information from the mayor,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington.

Though voters will ultimately decide whether the benefits outweigh the costs, Bates said he believes voters will agree with him on the measure.

“People are not going to go for this,” he said. “It’s not going to pass — people see through them.”

Contact Aliyah Mohammed at [email protected]