Out of the Fryer

Protect the public’s right to know

Email, call or attend hearing on April 10th to stand up for YOUR right to know

During the week of March 11-17, we celebrated Sunshine Week, which is “a national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.” It is also about the “public’s right to know what its government is doing, and why.”

It is important to analyze the publics’ role in government, not just during Sunshine Week, but every week, because decisions made by elected officials have a consequence on the publics’ quality of life. If the public is not engaged in the dialogue, and does not insist that their voices be heard, decisions will be made outside of public view and there won’t be much to do except complain about it after the fact.

Currently, there is an ongoing debate between the Mayor and City Council regarding budget authority. Unfortunately, there has been limited discussion about the public’s right to know and participate in that process. The outcome of this debate will determine if the public interest will be served, how much information will be provided in advance of changing the approved city budget, and whether the public’s right to participate in the decision-making process will be protected.

This past February, after months of debate about whether the Mayor could unilaterally cut public services after the budget had been adopted, a majority of the City Council voted to enact a budget ordinance that protected the public’s right to know and participate. The budget ordinance requires that any change to the approved city budget that results in a material and substantial cut to a service level requires a vote of the City Council at a public hearing.

However, a few members of the City Council and the Mayor are attempting to derail this important budget ordinance by promoting “compromise” language that would upend the balance of power between the executive (Mayor) and legislative (City Council) branches of government, limit the publics’ right to know and diminish your ability to participate in decisions about how your tax dollars are spent.

Under the compromise language being proposed, a public hearing and City Council action would not be required unless the proposed budget cut is a line item in the Annual Appropriation Ordinance and results in a $4 million or 10 percent cut. It means that after the budget is approved, the Mayor could cut approximately $48 million from the General Fund budget without a public hearing.

In order to make an informed decision about which budget ordinance is best for the public (the original budget ordinance or the proposed compromise language) consider the following:

At the February 28, 2007, Budget & Finance Committee meeting, I learned from Jay Goldstone, the Mayor’s Chief Financial Officer, that employees in the internal audit unit were reassigned more than a year ago to work on the overdue financial reports, and that there was only one employee left in the internal auditing unit.

This action raised a number of material issues that demand a public process, especially considering that the city’s internal audit controls have been the subject of some very expensive studies, investigations and delayed audits. It also put San Diego in the national news (USA Today) once again, after a story written by Matt Hall appeared in The San Diego Union-Tribune about the internal audit unit being shut down. The public needs to know how this issue would be addressed under both the “compromise” proposal and the original budget ordinance.

Under the compromise language, the elimination of the internal audit unit would not be a budget cut because the employees are simply performing a different city function. Therefore, no public hearing would be held by the City Council. At best, we might learn about it after the fact.

Under the budget ordinance that I support, the elimination of the internal audit function would require a public hearing because it is a material service level reduction.

The public has a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent - before and not after that decision is made. The compromise language is not in the best interest of the public and not in the spirit of open government. Instead, it allows one branch of government to make budget decisions behind closed doors, thereby limiting the publics’ right to know and participate. What is the point of having months of public budget hearings, if, after the budget is approved, the executive branch of government can do what it wants with the publics’ money and no public hearings would be required?

It is important to understand why open government and the publics’ right to know matter. These matter because having access to government information empowers the public and makes communities stronger. The City Council is scheduled to vote on this issue again on Monday, April 10 at 2pm at a public hearing. I encourage all members of the public to get involved and attend the public hearing. Your active participation is needed to make sure that your voice is not silenced.

Donna Frye is a City Councilmember for the Sixth District and a board member of Californians Aware, a non-profit organization whose mission is to support and defend open government, an enquiring press and a citizenry free to exchange facts and opinions on public issues.