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Santa Monica to Start Posting City Council Correspondence Online

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Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

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Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

October 14, 2015 -- In a move aimed at increasing government transparency, the Santa Monica City Council gave the go-ahead to start posting much of the correspondence members receive online on the City’s website.

Hard copies of correspondence sent to the City Council or the City Clerk will be scanned then posted in searchable form along with the agenda, said Council member Sue Himmelrich, who proposed the idea with Council member Ted Winterer.

Approved late last month by the Council on a 6-to-1 vote (Winterer was absent), the change comes at a time when some City officials have been accused by activists and others of not being open enough with the public.

“It’s absolutely about transparency,” Himmelrich said Tuesday. “People need to know what’s going on. People ought to know if various special interest groups are writing to the Council about something going before it.”

Correspondence addressed to individual Council members is not included, although the Brown Act requires public officials to disclose with whom they discuss public business on an individual basis, Himmelrich said.

As it now stands, the law already considers such correspondence to be part of the public record. But getting the information can be cumbersome, requiring those interested in doing so to submit a public records request with the City.

Himmelrich said is unclear how soon the policy will go into effect. City Clerk Sarah Gorman could not be reached for comment.

A number of California cities already post such information online, including Berkeley, Palo Alto, Thousand Oaks, Menlo Park, West Hollywood, San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay, according to information submitted by Himmelrich.

 It seems to be helpful in those cities, she said.

Mayor Kevin McKeown also says he is highly supportive of the online correspondence effort.

“Local democracy is a conversation, and posting written correspondence for all to see expands that conversation and makes it easier to track not only ideas but influence,” McKeown said.

McKeown said he hopes the Council will see “greater acceptance and understanding of divergent points of view when the public can read the full unedited thoughts of others as expressed to the Council.”

Many people may not yet appreciate how vibrant and informed our democratic dialogue in Santa Monica can be,” he added, “and I think people who’ve not previously seen messages sent to the City Council will be in for some interesting reading.”

The Council’s new move was welcomed by some of the organizations that routinely deal with – and often battle against -- the City.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Armen Melkonians, head of, an online-based group strongly opposed to some major developments in the planning pipeline.

“It will definitely open up transparency,” Melkonians said. “People will now know what’s going on behind the scenes.  It’s important for people to know who is lobbying the city.”

Little discussion was generated when the motion passed at the Council’s September 29 meeting, it agreed to have an outsider look into the Riel accusations, as well as to determine how other cities handle anti-corruption ordinances. (“Santa Monica Activists Seek Probe of Councilmember’s Role in Employee Firing,” September 1, 2015).

Also pleased with the Council’s decision were officials for the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC), who obtained emails from Council member Pam O’Connor they allege show she used her influence to have the City’s new information officer fired.

“It's a good move that does enhance transparency,” said Diana Gordon, one of the leaders of SMCLC, which is pushing for an investigation of O’Connor’s role in the firing of Elizabeth Riel.

“Otherwise one has to do a public records request to find out who has communicated with the
City on an issue coming before the Council,” she said. “And after the fact you learn who was advocating for what -- sometimes it's a bit of a surprise.”

The City is also developing language that makes it clear to those who submit the correspondence to the Council that their communications are public and will be posted online.

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