On February 18, the city council stripped the Open Government Commission of its authority to enforce the Sunshine Ordinance, Alameda’s open-government law. The commission no longer has the power to nullify an action passed in violation of the Sunshine Ordinance and order corrective action through a rehearing.
The commission can now only “recommend” not “order” corrective action if a violation occurs. While all the councilmembers agreed with this change, Vice-Mayor John Knox White and Councilmember Malia Vella wanted to wait until the commission had a chance to come up with new language that would give some teeth to its potential “recommendations.”
The Open Government Commission was created to oversee and enforce the Sunshine Ordinance. But the one and only time the commission sided with a complainant, the council refused to honor the commission’s decision that ordered the Council to re-agendize the matter.
By removing the commission’s ability to hold the city accountable, the commission is rendered toothless and complainants are left with only two options—asking the city council to rule on an alleged wrongdoing or suing the city. The entire Open Government Commission has already rejected the amendment three times.
The city attorney had opined that a non-legislative body, such as the commission, could not be granted enforcement authority—a justification initiated by some councilmembers. He did not address why “enforcing” a law enacted by the council regarding the conduct of its meetings is “legislative power.”
Many residents, including several attorneys who said the city had misstated the law, argued for preserving the cure-and-correct remedy.
The Alameda League of Women Voters said the commission “is more likely to be viewed by the public as a neutral arbiter of council adherence to proper procedures than the council itself.” Former Vice Mayor Lena Tam added, “Eliminating the current enforcement provisions would undermine trust in our city government by allowing the council to be its own watchdog.”
Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft and Councilmember Jim Oddie countered, expressing concern that people might use the Open Government Commission to overturn laws they do not like. Conversely, the commission has made it clear on numerous occasions that they have no interest in the merits of any legislation, only that it has been properly noticed.
No distinction was made between overturning or nullifying a decision versus “staying” it. Nor was the call for requiring the city council to suspend enacting legislation when a Sunshine Ordinance complaint is pending entertained.
The only person who sided with the council majority was former Mayor Trish Spencer, who said if voters didn’t trust the council they could always carry their grievances to the ballot box. Mayor Ashcraft concurred, saying they could also run for public office.
Originally published in Alameda Sun
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