“A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
So said James Madison in a letter written to W.T. Barry 200 years ago this year. Barry had written to Madison first, looking for help establishing schools in Kentucky. (These would be schools for white people. Barry, President Andrew Jackson’s postmaster, was a slaveholder.)
Why do we mention this here? The San Mateo County civil grand jury invoked the words of Madison in a report issued last week with a title that itself sounded like something out of the 19th century: “A Delicate Balance between Knowledge and Power: Government Transparency and the Public’s Right to Know.” The grand jury was making a case — albeit an extraordinarily qualified one — for more robust policies and procedures surrounding California Public Records Act requests.
Forgetting Madison’s assumption that “knowledge will forever govern ignorance” (well, we certainly know better than that in 2022), his premise was true. Those of us who wish to govern ourselves must avail ourselves of the relevant information if we want to do a decent job of it. As the grand jury learned, some local cities make that easier than others. Many of the 20 cities in the county can and should do better.
The recommendations contained in the grand jury’s Aug. 9 report are strangely tepid. It says cities should “consider” written policies, better software, clearer communications with citizens, an online request form, and regular document maintenance. Consider? Honestly, does local government have something better to do than help citizens be better citizens? We would argue there is very little going on at our city hall more important than transparency and giving residents what they need to know to make informed decisions about their own governance.
The California Public Records Act was signed into law by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1968. It was modeled on what was then still a novel concept, the federal Freedom of Information Act. The California law stipulates that local government share its business with the business owners — you and me. Police records, building permits, employee compensation and more is a matter of public record as a result of this important legislation.
Some cities, including Half Moon Bay, earned praise from the grand jury for their process. The grand jury noted that Half Moon Bay maintains a “document center” on its website with 2,000 records dating back a decade. That means no formal request is necessary in many instances. Making so many records available as a matter of course, without requiring the bureaucracy for access, reduces the time-consuming back and forth that sometimes makes response to a PRA maddening.
The grand jury found that 35 percent of San Mateo County municipalities have no written procedures for handling public records requests, which is incredible given that most said they receive more than 100 formal requests a year. Mind you, these are bureaucratic institutions with arcane rules for virtually everything else.
Too often, citizen requests for documents are treated like an affront or at least a time suck. In fact, they are the heart of a democracy. Kudos to the grand jury for bringing the issue to the fore 200 years after Madison.
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