10:00 PM PDT on Friday, October 1, 2010

Cassie MacDuff

They say sunshine is the best disinfectant. Turn over a rock, expose the underside to the light of day — the slime disappears.

That’s the idea behind San Bernardino County’s new sunshine ordinance, a manifesto of the obvious: The public’s business is public, unless prohibited by law.

Unfortunately in past practice, officials have too often played hide-the-ball with public information.

County supervisors acknowledged last week that foot-dragging and throwing up legal barriers have been the unofficial policy.

But Tuesday, when Supervisor Neil Derry’s sunshine law came to a vote, every last supervisor was a born-again believer in open government.

Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt succinctly stated the new standard: maximum disclosure with minimum delay.

Just because someone invokes the Public Records Act doesn’t mean the county should throw up a barrier or consult a lawyer, he said.

Supervisor Paul Biane admitted that withholding his calendar from a newspaper’s request several years ago — although he did it on the advice of county counsel — was a mistake.

It would have been better to black out the sensitive information and release the calendar, he said, moments before the board voted unanimously to enact the law.

What a refreshing turnaround from only a few years ago, when county lawyers redacted not just credit card numbers and home addresses, but the names of county officials who ate meals at taxpayer expense.

Accomplishing the new openness will require a culture change. And I’m sure it won’t be long before it’s tested: A member of the public will go to a county office and ask for a file that should be readily available.

Will he be told to put the request in writing (a ploy to trigger a 10-day waiting period)? Or will the file be handed over, no questions asked?

If people encounter roadblocks, Derry said, they’re welcome to call him.

If the new law doesn’t work the way he intended, he’ll amend it and bring it back for another vote. He expects it will need some fine-tuning.

The law requires every department to train two employees in what is public record, so requests can be promptly fulfilled.

What if one of the two trained workers moves on to another job? Derry said the department should immediately train another.

I think the county should go a step further: Train every employee in the basic tenet that county records are public. Make it part of the employee handbook and new employee orientation.

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