Editorial: Make 2007 the 'Year of Openness' | January 3, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - January 3, 2007

Editorial: Make 2007 the 'Year of Openness'

Both city and school district leaders need to re-commit to idea of open communications and meaning of 'public servants'

New leadership will take office in both Palo Alto and the Palo Alto school district during 2007 with the election of Yoriko Kishimoto as mayor and Camille Townsend as school board president. Menlo Park and East Palo Alto also have new leaders in mayors Kelly Ferguson and David Woods.

It is a good opportunity for all elected officials to take stock of their respective roles and obligations as public servants, particularly in Palo Alto in light of recent events in both governmental entities.

The first event is the management crisis that has embroiled the school district over issues of communication style and "trust" relating to Superintendent Mary Frances Callan, who has now announced her intention to retire this year.

The second is Palo Alto's being reminded forcefully by a judge, in a lawsuit brought by the Weekly, that city officials work for the public and that the public has a right to know if there is mismanagement or malfeasance. Other public agencies have already taken note of that ruling.

But there is a bigger issue involved that transcends the details of either situation: whether those elected to public office or appointed to top administrative positions truly appreciate the "public" nature and responsibilities of their positions, in many little decisions that flow from such a realization.

We fail to understand why someone would seek public office if they harbor private-business attitudes similar to those that ensnared Hewlett-Packard in a find-the-leak scandal.

Every candidate we've ever interviewed vows to represent the public first and foremost. What happens once they're elected?

Too often, public officials absorb an attitude that there are "family" matters that should be kept out of public view. An extreme example of this attitude was disturbingly evident in initial reactions to the Weekly's disclosures in late September of a Sept 6 document detailing the district's trust and communications issues.

But the city also seems insensitive to the public's right to know what's going on in a timely manner. This manifested itself in the December disclosures about massive expansions and rebuilding of both the Stanford Medical Center and the Stanford Shopping Center -- key city officials deferred almost entirely to Stanford and the shopping center owner as to how and when the public should be told of the plans. Even though officials knew details for weeks they chose silence over timely public disclosure of even basic information.

A continuing insult to the public's right to know is the late release of the "City Council packet" of reports that go with the agendas for Monday night meetings. The traditional release at 5 p.m. or later on Thursdays allows virtually no time for members of the public to become aware of staff recommendations and details of business coming before the council the following Monday.

For decades, staff members have felt free to discuss in advance their thinking about upcoming issues, which relieved some pressure on needing to see the printed staff reports. That seems to have tightened up, even though top officials deny there's any gag order.

City officials, prodded by Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison, did look hard in 2000 at moving the packet-release time a week earlier, but were unable to make printing, compilation and delivery deadlines work.

Times have changed, and most or all reports are available, or can be made available, in an electronic form online. It is time to review policies -- and thinking -- relating to release of staff reports, putting the public's right to know foremost. The staff should make agenda-related reports available immediately as they are completed, not wait until a printed hard-copy packet can be assembled and delivered. E-mail alerts can be sent in advance to council members on about-to-be-issued reports.

If a report can't be published at least a week prior to a meeting, then automatically reschedule the agenda item for a week later or the next available meeting for non-urgent items.

A similar setup should be adopted as standard practice by all school districts and communities, but there's no good reason Palo Alto can't take the "good example" lead in this area as it has in so many others.

It's time to end this longstanding slight of the public's right to know.


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