This week is “International Sunshine Week,” an initiative aimed at educating the public about the importance of open government. California Forward has requested that, as mayor of Rancho Palos Verdes, I provide an update on our City’s commitment to fostering a government whose business is the business of the people it serves. As the national focus has turned to transparency, we elected officials have committed ourselves to respond accordingly.
Transparency is the foundation of good government. A transparent government provides citizens with the opportunity to participate in government processes, provide feedback on important developments and take an active part in decisions that will impact their lives. The city of Rancho Palos Verdes (population 42,000) was established in 1973 on libertarian principles as a low-tax city. While our modest budget of $24 million has doubled in the past 20 years since I was last elected as mayor (1993), so, too, has the demand for bureaucratic regulatory controls and a heightened level of service. We are now a world-class resort community and have always had a high degree of civic engagement.
Being transparent is more than posting the city council agendas and televising council meetings. It’s more than creating a basic website and more than posting the annual budget online. Creating a transparent local government requires a cultural shift where access to public employee compensation records, city finance information and campaign finance disclosure statements is the norm, and not the exception.
Technological advances now offer many new (albeit sometimes convoluted) avenues to achieve transparency. Private companies offer low-cost solutions for local governments to increase transparency and interact with citizens, which in turn makes for a more nimble and responsive local government.
Here in Rancho Palos Verdes, the council has been actively pursuing enhanced reporting mechanisms. With the advent of a new council majority in 2011, several investigative and exploratory efforts were undertaken. An outside firm was hired to assess our IT program efficiency; another independent firm was engaged to do an Organizational Assessment of the staffing and to obtain feedback on accountability. The council decided early last year to establish
a regular program for bidding on high-value contracts and we are considering independent audits of select identifiers, as deemed necessary. Our council-appointed citizens committees are charged with the task of advising us of the community’s needs and desires for municipal services. They consist of highly accomplished individuals who are instrumental in providing advice on matters including traffic safety, land use, public pensions, emergency preparedness and more.
While public records requests certainly have their place in our democracy, personal contact with city employees and council members has proven to be more expeditious and cost effective. The council is eagerly working with staff and community to see to it that all avenues of information are readily available on our website and pertinent information can be easily located. Our city Manager has an "open door" policy and urges constituent involvement to address concerns. It’s effective; it’s expedient; and it builds trust between citizens and public servants. As a former teacher and professional mediator, I’ve learned that personal contact with seriously interested parties fosters trust by empowering them to reach solutions toward the greater good. To quote the inimitable Indira Ghandi,”You can’t shake hands with a clenched fist.”
My colleagues on the council support open, transparent local government, and I encourage you to do the same.
Susan Brooks is the mayor of Rancho Palos Verdes.