Passing Your Own "Sunshine" Law

The best way to ensure open government is by passing a local government "sunshine" ordinance that requires local agencies to make extra efforts to do public business in the open. The following points will guide you through the reasons and process for passing a local open government ("sunshine") ordinance.

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Why State Sunshine Laws Are Only the Beginning

Anyone with experience as a local government watchdog knows that the laws supporting access to official meetings and public records often don't accommodate the needs of citizens attempting to be informed participants in their government.

The Brown Act and the California Public Records Act simply don't always encourage, much less guarantee, the quality, ease or completeness of informed participation that citizens might desire. And changing these state laws can be a daunting task. In recent years attempts to reform open government laws have met with aggressive, well-marshaled opposition from lobbyists maintained in Sacramento by statewide local government associations. These lobbyists far outnumber the few full-time advocates for freedom of information and expression, and their resources are impressive—drawing as they do on dues paid by local public agencies, using your tax dollars.

Do citizens have to wait for state law to change in order to get better access policy from their city councils, county supervisors, school boards and special district directors? Fortunately, no.

An often overlooked aspect of both the Brown Act and the Public Records Act is that they do not pre-empt or discourage local agencies from adopting their own more accommodating rules. On the contrary, these statutes expressly authorize public agencies to do so.

The Brown Act provides, in Government Code Section 54953.7: "Notwithstanding any other provision of law, legislative bodies of local agencies may impose requirements upon themselves which allow greater access to their meetings than prescribed by the minimum standards set forth in this chapter. . ." (Emphasis added.)

The Public Records Act provides, in Government Code Section 6253.1: "Except as otherwise prohibited by law, a state or local agency may adopt requirements for itself which allow greater access to records than prescribed by the minimum standards set forth in this chapter . . ." (Emphasis added.)

Thus the Brown Act and Public Records Act, by their own terms, are not a ceiling on the access rights that citizens may expect of their government, but a floor below which their rights may not descend: "minimum standards" for public participation and information.

Which Communities Have Adopted Their Own Higher Standards?

Nine local jurisdictions in the state have so far adopted their own improved access rules: San Francisco, Richmond, Contra Costa County, Oakland, Benicia, Vallejo, Milpitas, San Diego, and Gilroy .

What's the Effect of a Local Sunshine Law?

The beauty of this approach is its flexibility. The law you propose to your local body can be the one most responsive to the recurrent procedural and policy problems you encounter. Here are some typical objectives of sunshine rules:
* Extend open meeting requirements to more situations
  • Require earlier or better access to agenda-related information
  • Reduce the frequency of closed sessions
  • Require more disclosure about closed session topics and actions taken
  • Identify high-interest categories of records or information to be disclosed readily
  • Set an expedited schedule for producing records
  • Provide for free or low-cost access to records
  • Make computer-stored information more accessible
  • Make explanations more specific when access is denied
  • Provide a ready response to simple queries and requests
  • Champion the free expression rights of public employees and elected officials as well as community members
  • Create a permanent oversight commission of citizens to assure that the sunshine law is understood and respected


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