BY DICK ROGERS—When it came time last December to vote on a labor contract for hundreds of city workers, San Leandro leaders didn’t scurry into a back room to make the politically hot decision in secret.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that San Leandro, like other local governments, obscured its intent and minimized public participation in another way. Call it hiding in plain sight.
Instead of helping the public by spelling out the most salient contract provisions, the city’s official agenda announced the upcoming vote like this:
“Resolution Approving the Memorandum of Understanding [MOU] Between the City of San Leandro and the San Leandro City Employees’ Association, Local 21 IFPTE, AFL-CIO [SLCEA] (provides for a two-year contract for the period January 1, 2011 to December 31, 2012).”
Did that mean city workers were in line for raises or two years of wage stagnation? Was the City Council about to adopt pension reform or continue business as usual? What was the price tag for taxpayers?
At a time when local governments are in financial trouble and the public is demanding answers, these are key questions. But not a word was said. For Joe Citizen, the vague and unhelpful language offered no clues. But the city wasn’t through pulling down the curtain. Instead of encouraging public involvement, the city buried the item in the middle of the agenda’s consent calendar, generally reserved for routine decisions that need no discussion, like new stop signs. Although council-watchers and political insiders knew to show up, would the general public have packed the chambers had they known what was at stake?
San Leandro isn’t unique when it comes to favoring opaque language. Last year, the Los Angeles City Council agenda listed “CONSIDERATION, DISCUSSION and POSSIBLE ACTIONS addressing the Fiscal Year 2009-10 and 2010-11 budget deficits, City staff and others to report on budget balancing matters and possible closed executive session as it may relate to bargaining instructions relative to negotiations with employees and employee organizations.”
Not once did officials warn the public they were about to authorize elimination of as many as 4,000 positions.
The First Amendment Coalition is currently involved in litigation with Los Angeles, arguing that the state’s Ralph M. Brown open meetings act requires more than vague, misleading or wholly incomplete notice when key decisions are about to be made.
The public deserves better. It doesn’t take a Steinbeck to write clearly and concisely. Transparency is all the rage these days, but it’s little more than a buzzword when government cloaks itself in jargon and bafflegab.
Dick Rogers, a veteran newspaperman, was most recently Metro Editor, then ombudsman at the San Francisco Chronicle. He has taught at San Francisco State University and Ohlone College in Fremont and is a writing coach for the California Scholastic Journalism Initiative . Dick is a member of the FAC board of directors.