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Poll: Is Your Local Government Open?

In light of Sunshine Week, Patch looks to promote a dialogue about open government and freedom of information.

In light of Sunshine Week 2012, South Pasadena Patch wants to converse and educate our town on the importance of open government.

The goal of Sunshine Week is to promote a dialogue about open government and freedom of information. Participants include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in government transparency. 

In California, there are two acts that provide open access to public meetings, The Brown Act and The Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act. We also have the California Public Records Act that gives citizens access to all kinds of public information that is useful to communities.

You may recall the South Pasadena City Council for violating The Brown Act after a complaint was filed by a local resident in August 2010. 

The complaint , which led some to question whether the decision was improperly made behind closed doors. 

"Although the Brown Act allows for closed sessions in specific, narrowly drawn exceptions, there is a presumption in favor of public access," the Public Integrity Division told Patch at the time of the investigation.

 “We do not make any factual findings with regard to the alleged conduct because there is no independent source of evidence of the subject matter of the closed session discussions involved.” 

“However, the circumstances we reviewed provide a sufficiently reasonable concern as is explained below,” she continued.  

There have been other issues, as well, where South Pas residents have cited a lack of transparency in local government: the driving range extension debacle, the Fair Oaks Corridor Improvement Project and, most recently, 

Nevertheless, South Pas local government has taken strides recently to open up the lines of communication. Just Tuesday night, And in January, it began streaming all City Council meetings online, hosting a 6-month archive on its site.  

So today, Patch asks: How would you rate your local government's openness to public access: Excellent, Avererge or Poor? What does your local government do well? Where do you feel there is room for improvement? What suggestions do you have for things to run differently? 

Take our Patch poll, and weigh in in comments! 

This year Sunshine Week is co-sponsored by ASNE and the Reporters Committee For Freedom of the Press and many other media industry partners, including Patch. The week is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation of Miami, along with the ASNE Foundation, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and others.  

spidra March 14, 2012 at 05:44 PM
Good: Coverage of City Council & Commission meetings on local cable TV (for those who pay for cable), availability of City Council and Commission agendas in PDF form. Bad: City website is still jumbled. It's not as well-organized as it could and should be. If one cannot easily find the information, it might as well not be published. City Council & Commission agendas (and any other gov't documents & announcements) should be available online to read in plain HTML, not just PDF form. Website should be thoroughly disabled accessible. http://www.w3.org/WAI/eval/Overview.html It may be that a hands-on citizen's guide to how local government works is covered in current civics classes but it wasn't when I was going to grammar school here. I think there should be a basic guide on the city website as to how to introduce legislation, how zoning code is introduced/modified, rules for public comment at city meetings, etc. A lot of citizens don't know that information and it's difficult to participate fully in local city government without it.
Kristen Lepore (Editor) March 14, 2012 at 06:08 PM
@Spidra: Thanks for sharing insight and suggestions. I would be happy to pass your thoughts along to the City. How does everyone feel? What does the City of South Pas do well? Where do you feel there is room for improvement?
spidra March 14, 2012 at 06:20 PM
I forgot to mention that it would be good for the city to have a thought-out & integrated social media policy. Whoever is handling the Facebook account does a good job, from what I can see. It is unfortunate that a lot of the links lead to PDFs rather than HTML but that's a separate issue. The So Pas Twitter account is a lot less active and I think should also be tweeting a lot of the stuff that the Facebook account posts (without simply tweeting Facebook URLs... not everyone is on Facebook). The SPPD Nixle-linked Twitter account has its uses as well although it feels pretty impersonal. I'd love to see a "scorecard" of City Council votes so that people can track how their council people are weighing in on various items, particularly items that return to the agenda in modified form. South Pasadena doesn't get the kind of in-depth investigative reporting that a large city like LA gets so citizens need to synthesize raw data themselves. It would be nice if it were easily available somewhere. (And, tangentially, I'd love it if Patch started taking on some journalism majors and getting into some investigative reports...)
Kristen Lepore (Editor) March 14, 2012 at 06:34 PM
@Spidra: A scorecard is a good idea. ... What types of investigative articles would you like to see Patch cover?
spidra March 14, 2012 at 06:46 PM
I know something I'm very curious about is how we had a YMCA community garden, then it was shut down, then we suddenly had several pages of new zoning code on community gardens. How did that happen? What was the public process there? Was this a case of one person having the ear of someone in city government or was it a groundswell of public opinion in South Pasadena that the city needed several pages of code on the subject? I have no idea. I've seen nothing written on the subject in Patch or the South Pasadena Review. Maybe it was done but I need to look at archived issues? I'm sure for any of the subjects alluded to in the article above as being something people feel wasn't transparent enough that people would love to see more investigative reporting on the subject. How did it come to pass that So Pas was (justly) fined for raw sewage spills? How did the So Pas sewage system get so bad? How long has it been since it had maintenance work done? I know Patch did an article when the news hit the LA Times and the Pasadena Star News, but I think doing follow-up articles helps keep people informed and keeps city government's feet to the fire. But it's not like I have all the answers to what areas need more sunshine... Like a lot of citizens, I don't find out about some of this stuff until it hits Patch or the Pasadena papers or the LA Times.
Kristen Lepore (Editor) March 14, 2012 at 07:27 PM
@spidra: We have written about the community garden ordinance, but I know you've seen those articles bc you commented on them. We did not specifically get into why the ordinance was changed; we only discussed the restrictions involved. A couple residents did speak in favor of a community garden at the last City Council meeting. I believe CC will be discussing it soon. I would be happy to write a follow-up article addressing some of your concerns. As far as the sewage system, prior to 2009, I believe there were only two sewer rate increases—1978 and 2004. That's a long time without. Couple that with a 75-year-old sewer system and seven public works directors in about nine years—and I think you see the problem. Regardless, these are valid questions, and I will stay on these topics.
spidra March 14, 2012 at 08:32 PM
I think you misunderstand me. What I'm asking is how did the new(ish) community garden zoning code get added in the first place? What was the process there, how public was it, and how much public involvement was there? With the sewer thing...having the money to do maintenance is key, of course. But how much maintenance was done in those years? What sort of maintenance? Has there been any independent assessment of where So Pas went wrong and steps it can take (in addition to sewer rate increase) to fix the problem and prevent it happening again? Why were there 7 public works directors in 9 years? Is the vetting process flawed? Are work conditions and/or pay so bad that it's easy for other cities to headhunt our directors? Anyway, thanks for the back & forth. I appreciate that you're willing to entertain these issues.
Linda Lynch March 14, 2012 at 11:17 PM
Great questions and hopefully the issues will be addressed.
spidra March 15, 2012 at 11:38 PM
Given what a big issue transparency was in the recent City Council election, I'm surprised more people haven't commented on this article with their take on things.
Ron Rosen March 16, 2012 at 12:28 AM
@Spridra The feeling at City Council meetings is night and day to what it was before. It's refreshing. The current budget meetings are an effort to get people more involved in understanding how the city works and to help decide how money can and should be spent. Things have changed a lot. More to come.
Andy Krinock March 16, 2012 at 01:21 AM
I believe transparency in government means that key city employees and council members should answer questions raised by the press, citizens and other stakeholders. Explainations to inquires should be clear and "controversial l" actions or decisions fully explained to stakeholders. Transparency does not mean having 3 minutes to ask a question on complicated issues. Key staff and councilmembers should be available to answer letters and e-mails to inquiries, periodically meet with stakeholders and otherwise promote transparency. If questons are viewed as not relevant then that should be communicated to the stakeholder. Will this take extra work? Absolutely. That is all part of the job, if one is to busy with their private job as a council person perhaps they should not hold the office. Perhaps it is too early to judge the current council because it is early in their terms. My historical experience has been unsatisfactory, perhaps because there are no current standards on how transparency can be improved and agreed to by the parties.

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