The Public Eye
Group seeks to organize an army of citizen-watchdogs.
Thursday, January 13, 2005
Terry Francke wants you to pay attention to your government. The former general counsel of the California First Amendment Coalition, Francke splintered from that group more than a year ago to form Californians Aware (CalAware), an organization championing “public forum rights.” CalAware’s mission is to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in public.
As it stands today, it’s up to the press and a handful of concerned citizens to act as watchdogs over local governments. On the whole, cities and counties keep things out in the open—compared to the past. The public now has a right to inspect most government records; meetings of elected officials must be announced in advance; and the Brown Act mostly keeps city council members from straying into backroom decision-making. But the truth is, unscrutinized government will stray.
And some public meetings, despite proper noticing, are held for empty audiences. Unless it has to do with “money, sex or kids,” Francke notes, the public will not make the effort. People are increasingly distracted, and unless the agenda affects them directly, most have become content to let the city council take care of the city.
“I think people have come to assume there are more people out there who attend these meetings who are protecting their interests,” Francke says.
Despite several layers of law, even the smallest governments run afoul of public interests. To try to prevent it from happening at all, Francke has begun a campaign to form cadres of government watchdogs. They may not carry badges from CalAware, but he wants to organize the public to be present and knowledgeable when government bodies gather.
Beginning this year, CalAware will hold regional conferences that will offer “basic training” on laws that protect the public interest, such as the Brown Act.
These meetings, beyond educating the public on its rights, will recognize community figures who have championed the public interest.
Francke was in Monterey last week to address Monterey’s politically influential Rotary Club at its weekly lunch gathering, and to drum up interest in the cause.
He was invited by Rotarian and longtime local politician Lou Haddad, former mayor and city councilman from Seaside. Today Haddad’s a perennial candidate in Monterey political races, where he champions a new approach to the water shortage by dusting off provisions enacted during the state’s colonial era.
As an involved member in local politics, Haddad supports Francke’s plans to organize citizens and make them aware of their rights.
“It’s very easy to violate the Brown Act, unbeknownst to voters,” he says. “And it’s easy for the city attorney to come up with an excuse why it’s not a violation of the Brown Act. But the perception is that violations occur.”
A recent court decision shows that even if government does not mean to hide information, reluctance to release information can prove costly.
On Jan. 7, Superior Court Judge Susan Dauphiné ruled that the city of Monterey must cough up more than $100,000 in attorneys’ fees in a case brought over public records by former teacher and activist Pat Bernardi of Carmel Valley.
In 2000, Bernardi brought a case against the county that found development lawyers had been “ghost-writing” county regulations. She later brought a case against the city of Monterey when city attorneys were slow in releasing public records related to a Cannery Row development project. The information she sought was eventually revealed through a subpoena—not from the city.
On Jan. 7, Judge Dauphiné ruled that Bernardi’s attorney, public interest lawyer Michael Stamp, was entitled to be paid $350 an hour for more than 260 hours of work trying to get the public records released from the city.
It’s cases like Bernardi’s that Francke wants to prevent. Under his campaign with CalAware, networks of citizens will be set up so that ordinary people who might be leery of some government action or have a question about city records can consult other CalAware members around the state.
One new aspect to Francke’s approach is the inclusion of public servants in the organization. Other First Amendment organizations tend to be made up of journalists and lawyers. CalAware members also include citizens and government officials. Already on the CalAware board, for example, is Donna Frye, the San Diego city council member who has protested what she thinks is an over-reliance on closed-session meetings. (She is also the controversial candidate in a mayoral write-in campaign turned ballot dispute.)
Francke wants to bring the press, the public, and the government—three groups that are mutually skeptical of each other—under the same tent.
The recent passage of Proposition 59, shows that even if the public isn’t yet organized as a force to hold government accountable, it believes government should be transparent. (Support for the so-called Sunshine Amendment was huge, with 83 percent of voters in favor.)
Now CalAware hopes to bring the public, the press, and the government together to make sure there’s no need for lawsuits such as Bernardi’s expensive case against the city of Monterey.
“This is an experiment to see if a three-legged platform works,” Francke says. “We’ll see if this works.”