PD Editorial: Secrecy about Santa Rosa candidates hurts process
Published: Sunday, January 20, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 18, 2013 at 6:20 p.m.
The curse of good government is the presumptive belief by some in elected office that secrecy is the better policy.
The truth is our state laws have little tolerance for such thinking. Under the rights granted by the California Public Records Act, the state's landmark openness legislation that was bolstered by the passage of Proposition 59 in 2004, the public is entitled to access all government documents and meetings except in narrowly defined circumstances.
But under the ever-present nemesis of secrecy-creep, government is often coming up with new explanations for why information should be kept from the public in hopes of creating better outcomes.
This was evident last week with the Santa Rosa City Council's decision to keep secret the names of those who apply for the council's current vacancy — at least until Wednesday, the day after the filing deadline. At that point, the council plans to release the names and conduct interviews in public. The council claims secrecy is important at the outset to protect the integrity of the process.
This, however, is in stark contrast to election law, which requires that the names of those who seek elected office be made public as soon as papers are filed, not at the filing deadline. Even the names of those who take out papers to run for office are open for public inspection.
So why should the process of applying for a vacancy on the City Council be any less transparent than running for an open seat?
This has not been adequately explained, which is why on Thursday this newspaper filed a California Public Records Act request seeking copies of, or at least access to, the names and applications of those who have applied for the City Council vacancy.
It's our belief that knowing the names could influence who decides for or against seeking the appointment. Certainly this wouldn't be the first time that a candidate chooses to pursue an otherwise elected office because he or she is not happy with the field of candidates.
Nevertheless, the city on Friday denied the newspaper's request, claiming that the city has the right to keep the process secret under the “deliberative process exemption” of the California Public Records Act. This exemption, which emerged from a newspaper lawsuit concerning access to a governor's calendar, allows officials to shield from public scrutiny papers and materials that elected officials use in the course of reaching a decision. But it's proven to be a broad umbrella that has been used to shelter all kinds of mischief.
The question in this case is what deliberations will be taking place before the deadline on Tuesday? And why would the city be waiving the exemption on Wednesday, the very day the completed packets are delivered to the City Council members and when deliberations could commence? The City Council is essentially taking the position that the entire process of appointing someone to fill Susan Gorin's seat on the City Council could be kept a secret if they so choose, but they are opening it up to the public on Wednesday to be charitable.
We encourage the City Council to drop this policy and release the names as well as the application packets. The importance of this particular seat — given the existing 3-3 ideological split on the council — makes transparency from the outset all the more important.
From what we know, at least three people have formally applied for this position. But at the moment, we can't tell you who they are. That's not good government. That's just nonsense.
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