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CalAware Helps Keep Government Open

Nonprofit organization advocates for public awareness.

Our series on Sunshine Week continues with this guest column by Terry Francke, the former executive director and general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition. He is the founder of Californians Aware, a nonprofit, nonpartisan center for public forum rights.

Californians Aware (CalAware) is a statewide nonpartisan, nonprofit organization founded eight years ago to "help citizens, officials and journalists keep Californians aware of public issues, by supporting and defending open government, an inquiring press, and a citizenry free to exchange facts and opinions."

Or as one Patch editor put it a few days ago, "CalAware advocates, educates - and litigates - in the interest of open government."

Audits
We do anonymous testing of government agencies in Sacramento and statewide to gauge and report on their awareness of and compliance with public records access law, assigning letter grades for their performance and including testers' experiences in their own words.

Training
We provide workshops for—among others—public officials, employees and employee organizations on the laws requiring open government and compliance issues they need to be aware of. For example, we presented a free webinar Tuesday on recent legislation, litigation and "flashpoints" where practices flirt with liability.

Legislation
We sponsor bills like the current SB 1336 (Yee), which would assure anonymity for whistleblowers and persons interviewed in investigations of alleged improper governmental activities, but also require disclosure of the investigative findings, of those found responsible for serious problems, and of what if any discipline was imposed on them.

Sunshine Ordinances
We also support improved transparency legislation at the local level - Sunshine Ordinances filling gaps or removing obstacles to access in the Brown Act or the Public Records Act - that can be either adopted by local government bodies voluntarily or passed by citizen ballot initiatives if local officials are not cooperative.  Currently, for example, we have helped develop such measures headed for the November 2012 ballot in the cities of Dixon and Berkeley.

Publications
We publish the most comprehensive guides to the open meetings and public records laws that are available. Both can be ordered from Amazon, and an ebook version of the records guide is available for Kindle users there, as well as for iPad and other tablet users in the iTunes store book section.

Patch readers can also contact us for a free pamphlet, the Bell-Proofer's Investigative Checklist, which shows how to decode and use the Brown Act and Public Records Act to best advantage to prevent City of Bell-type corruption. At a minimum it will help you stay on top of what’s really happening at city hall, county HQ or a wide variety of district offices by knowing what to watch for in government meetings, what information to ask for and what responses not to accept at face value.

Personal Help
If you have a question about the sunshine laws or a concern they're being flouted, a call to us at (916) 487-7000 or an email to terry@calaware.org will get you an answer, and sometimes more. About once a week or so we send a demand letter, often prompted by a contact from a citizen, journalist or even public official or employee, cautioning a government agency about its apparent failure to follow a sunshine law, and warning that unless the practice is corrected we are likely to sue.

Litigation
If the demand letter fails to persuade, we increasingly go to court for at least an order that the agency comply with the law, if not a nullification of action taken.

We have recently sued (and are settling with) the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, which reversed a controversial action it had taken, without adequate agenda notice, to cut "red tape" in the regulation of land development.

We have also filed a Brown Act lawsuit against the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors for their misuse of a closed session to confer with Governor Jerry Brown. Earlier litigation forced a community college district to reduce its public records copy fees, and since then all we've had to do is send others a demand letter.

Finally, we salute all the Patch-encouraged "local heroes" pursuing government transparency through their speech, writings and other activism, and encourage them to let us know what they're doing, when they need help, and how else we can work with Patch to continue keeping Californians aware.

Terry Francke has been helping journalists, citizens and public officials understand and use their First Amendment, open government and public information rights since 1980.

Francke and his daughter, Emily, founded Californians Aware in the spring of 2004. The idea setting this nonprofit, nonpartisan public interest norganization apart is that working with public-spirited citizens, journalists and government officials and employees at the same time can effect a change in the overall landscape, and improve the public trust while also making openness more convenient for those at the gates.

Francke previously served 14 years as executve director and general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition, after a 10-year post as legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

Over all these periods Francke has fielded tens of thousands of phoned and e-mailed queries on press and citizen rights; written the most widely used guidebooks to the law governing open meetings, open courts and public records in California; served as an advisory panel member to the National Center on Courts and the Media; taught journalism law at the Department of Communication at Stanford University; and served as an expert contributor to the 1994 major revisions to the Ralph M. Brown Act and Proposition 59 of 2004, making open government a basic right of citizens under the California Constitution.

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