Neil Derry

10:00 PM PDT on Tuesday, September 28, 2010

By IMRAN GHORI
The Press-Enterprise

San Bernardino County supervisors unanimously approved a “sunshine ordinance” Tuesday that they say will increase public access to government documents.

The law, which will take effect in early November, states that the county should process all public records act requests with the presumption that all government records are public. The burden will be on the county to cite any exemption prohibiting the release of those documents.

“I’m hopeful this ordinance will further our goal of openness and accountability in county government and build confidence through greater transparency,” said Supervisor Neil Derry, who introduced the proposal and made ethics reform part of his campaign platform in 2008.
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Derry noted that the proposal had gone through several revisions as he worked to craft an ordinance acceptable to all five supervisors, but he said he was pleased with the final version.

All four of his colleagues expressed support for the ordinance. Only Supervisor Josie Gonzales alluded to any behind-the-scenes differences over the proposal.

Gonzales said she didn’t like it at first and wanted something “that had sharp teeth.”

“But I will tell you it’s through efforts such as this ordinance we begin the road of recovering from corruption,” Gonzales said, referring to recent scandals that have resulted in the arrest of former county officials.

One significant reform touted by Derry is a provision in the ordinance prohibiting the county from using the deliberative process privilege — which refers to internal decision-making — in refusing to release financial documents.

The county has cited that exemption, based on a 1991 state Supreme Court ruling, to withhold information in the past, saying that some of the county’s internal deliberations can be kept secret.

The ordinance also discourages officials from citing deliberative process for other nonfinancial records such as meeting minutes.

Gloria Anderson, president of the San Bernardino County League of Women Voters, called the ordinance a good first step but said officials must do more to open up the inner workings of county government.

“There’s still a perception that special interests are at the heart of county business instead of the public interest,” she said.

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