Transparent Government: Sunshine or Colonoscopy?

December 17, 2012

By Troy L. Butzlaff, Placentia city administrator and chair of the Government Transparency and Civic Engagement Subcommittee

While I admit the heading may sound a bit ominous and even frightening to some of you, it was actually the title of an article that appeared in the Nov. 19, 2011 edition of the Economist magazine. The article examined how the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico has used technology in recent years to make once arcane data more easily accessible to the public to browse, crunch and snoop.

 

Now with a click of a button, residents of Albuquerque can peruse through vast amounts of information from the convenience of their desktop computer to find out how much the mayor earns annually, what he charged on his city-issued credit card last month, how much the city paid a specific vendor and what the payment was for, and the salaries of every city employee.

While many cities across our great state have gone to great lengths to place similar data on the web making information once revered exclusively by journalists and gadflies looking for the proverbial “smoking gun” readily accessible to the public, much work remains to be done to see if we are truly going to change public perception of government and to avoid the potential threat of transparency through legislative colonoscopy.   

It is in this context of working to provide a more comprehensive and practical understanding of transparency issues in local government, while at the same time alleviating the need for a legislative mandate from Sacramento that could force transparency practices upon us, that guided the Executive Committee of the City Managers' Department of the League of California Cities in 2011 to establish a Government Transparency and Civic Engagement Subcommittee. The purpose of this subcommittee is to review and identify the various practices and protocols currently being used by California cities to promote open government in their communities, and to share this acquired knowledge to build a better understanding of transparency and the various tools and techniques available to local government officials to enhance transparency in their own organization.

The subcommittee is comprised of city managers and key assistants representing cities big and small from all over California. 

The following individuals were appointed last year and will remain on the subcommittee:

  • Steven Falk, Lafayette city manager
  • Karen Pinkos, El Cerrito assistant city manager
  • Tom Robinson, La Mirada city manager
  • Lori Sassoon, Rancho Cucamonga deputy city manager
  • David Ott, Solana Beach city manager
  • Rene Mendez, Gonzales city manager
  • Kathy Millison, Santa Rosa city manager
  • Mahdi Aluzri, Beverly Hills assistant city manager

In addition the individuals listed below were recently added to the subcommittee:

  • Leslie Keane, Laguna Woods city manager
  • Andrea Lueker, Morro Bay city manager
  • Tim Chapa, Arvin city manager
  • Thaddeus McCormack, Santa Fe Springs city manager
  • Patricia Martel, Daly City city manager
  • Dana Shigley, American Canyon city manager

The subcommittee has embarked on an ambitious work plan and over the past 11 months has made substantial progress towards assembling an electronic resource guide that will be available via the League’s website and provided to each city on a USB flash drive. This resource guide will consist of a number of helpful resources and tools including a set of guiding principles, a toolbox of best practices and suggested protocols that local government officials can review and apply, as appropriate, in their communities to enhance transparency and make information more easily accessible to the public.

In addition, the subcommittee has forged a strategic partnership with the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine University and the Institute for Local Government and is working on the creation of an “Optimal Municipal Participatory Budgeting Tool” that can be used by any agency to not only stimulate public engagement in the annual budget process, but to earn the trust and support of the community for the budget decisions the city council will ultimately have to make. The subcommittee is hoping to complete its work on both the resource guide and budgeting tool sometime in 2013.

Public oversight, civic participation and engagement—the stuff of democratic accountability—all depends on a transparent, open government. The more open and transparent government is the quicker we can foster the support and trust of the public. As local government officials, it is within our power to decide whether to seize the initiative and work towards enhancing the availability of our information to the public or to sit on the sidelines and run the risk that a legislative fiat will force us to make this information available regardless of the cost or negative consequences it may have on our organization. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I for one choose to be bathed in the sunlight of transparency and work on my own terms to enhance public access to information rather than be given a legislative colonoscopy and forced to meet some new and costly state mandate.



 
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