The city of San Jose added a new layer to it’s already far reaching accountability and sunshine laws last week — the city council unanimously approved a measure requiring council members to disclose electronic communications, including those received on their personal email or cell phones from lobbyists or others with a material interest in the matters under discussion. Council members will also have to respond to public records requests with any relevant personal emails or text messages. The move is considered to be one of the most far reaching sets of disclosure requirements as cities grapple with adjusting rules made before the advent of technology allowing lobbyists and other interests unprecedented access in or out of meetings.
Before the Blackberry era, interested parties would send hand written notes to members in meetings, a move that was both visible to other council members and fell under disclosure requirements. However, with email and text messaging those notes have become increasingly less public. According to Michelle McGurk, a Senior Policy Advisor for the city of San Jose, sending a text message to a council member’s personal cell phone innately creates, “a means of communication that is not public.” McGurk also pointed to the level of access a lobbyist or other material interest has by having the ability to send text messages to personal cell phone numbers.
The new rules will be tested in a year long pilot program limited to city council members, and the council will monitor how the requirements work in practice. The council will be looking at not only the disclosures made in meetings but how the rules effect disclosures in public records requests.
According to McGurk, San Jose looked at steps other cities have taken to address the issue, but found them lacking. She cited rules that ask members to turn off their phones during council meetings, but noted that those rules didn’t get to the heart of the issue. The city has already faced problems with texting, the San Jose Mercury News reported on an incident where a lobbyist sent a text message to the wrong council member, a story which put a spotlight on the problem.
McGurk noted that San Jose has been working hard to make sure that their ethics and disclosure rules keep pace with changing technology and forms of communication. In recent years, the city has instituted over 90 reforms to its transparency, ethics and disclosure rules. Besides disclosure requirements in meetings, residents have the opportunity research and review items on the council’s agenda well before they are discussed. Council member calendars are also made public, allowing interested parties to see exactly what council members are doing and who they are taking meetings with.
“San Jose residents really have an opportunity to see and review what’s being discussed in a timely fashion. We have worked really hard to remove policy by surprise,” Ms. McGurk said.