This week I reviewed the City of Oakland’s Sunshine Ordinance, mostly to familiarize myself with the ordinance that specifies how public meetings must be publicized, convened, and open to all residents. For some reason -- and I’m not sure if most community members believe the same thing -- but I thought the Sunshine Ordinance required local governments and elected officials to engage with the public. So you can imagine my surprise last night when after reading through all 32 pages of Oakland’s ordinance I did not once read the words “engage,” “collaborate,” or “public-decision.”
The Sunshine Ordinance is a local ordinance that is intended to clarify and supplement California’s Brown Act of 1953, and Public Records Act of 1968. In Oakland, the ordinance directs local bodies to make information about public meetings accessible to the public and with notice. This means that when City Council or commissions plan to discuss a topic of public concern the public must be made aware of the meeting via physical posting of the agenda in a location accessible to the public and online. In addition, information provided to prepare decision-makers for the meeting must also be made available to the public. These “extra” protections are not required by the state and only a handful of California cities and counties have adopted local Sunshine ordinances.
According to Matt Leighninger, Executive Director of Deliberative Democracy Consortium (DDC), most of these laws mandate public hearings, open comment periods, and other passive, formulaic participation processes; these processes are rated poorly by both citizens and public servants, and often seem to have a negative impact on policymaking and trust in government.
If the Sunshine Ordinance is not about public participation, any more than allowing a person to speak for 2 minutes at a public meeting, then what policies are in place that specify how city staffers and elected officials should engage and collaborate with the public? Turns out there aren’t any. The current legal and policy framework for participation does not match the expectations and capacities of residents; it pre-dates widespread use of the Internet, by requiring only that meetings, agenda, and minutes be put online, and it does not reflect the current practices for participatory decision making and problem-solving.
So where do we go from here? I’m talking with elected officials in Oakland and San Francisco about their current policies, regulations, and ordinances that should include engagement, collaboration, decision-making, and problem solving to determine if there is a way to incorporate modern, open, and inclusive participation into our governmental decision-making and problem solving processes. To aid in these conversations I’ll be using the DDC’s Model Public Participation Ordinance drafted by a group of thought leaders, to move our cities to adopting real guidelines for valuable public participation and inclusion.