In recent years, as an elected official, I struggle to balance the community’s ‘right to know’ (or simple curiosity) against the privacy of individuals or adhering to good faith and fair negotiations with groups or corporations. I have been criticized from both ends of the spectrum. A blogger once told me that I have no right to know why he wanted the public information — he was clearly fishing for something interesting to write. Others have argued that there is no real public ‘right to know,’ and that all dealings of government should be secret, and any dissemination of information to anyone is considered a “leak.”
We pride ourselves in Alameda on the “small town” feel and believe our right to know is paramount. We want to know who is moving into the house next door, how much they paid for their home, what are their remodeling plans, what new business (Target or Orchard Supply) is going into the Alameda Towne Centre, how much money is it going to cost to bring Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to Alameda Point, or why we didn’t get contacted when there was a Dodge commercial on the Bay Farm Island Bridge. Sometimes we jump to conclusions with partial facts in order to promote a political agenda. That is where a review of the public records is a good means to determine another party’s credibility and veracity.
In a democracy where the electorate has the ultimate authority to determine their elected leaders, it can be argued that most of the government should be transparent and open to the public or public view. This enables the community to stay abreast of the issues and keep a watchful eye on any government abuses.
Some in the community have turned that idea into their right to know and get information in order to get popular opinion on their side of an issue. Others used this right to know as a justification for sneaking into homes or workplaces or to just badger a person until they get a story that gives them the ‘scoop.’
Clearly, the public has a right to know about anything that endangers their health and safety: when an oil spill occurs on Crown Beach that could endanger their health; when there is a fire at the former Naval Air Station that could affect nearby residents; whether an alarm is real when sounded after a power outage and other such times that the public safety requires a dissemination of information to save lives.
However, citizens also have a right to privacy and to protect themselves from unscrupulous or non-reputable persons that use the power of the internet to smear a person or organization.
We believe the federal government was too invasive when they required the Alameda Unified School District to give military recruiters full access to student records, including their personal information, because the District receives federal funds from the No Child Left Behind Act. Does the public have a right to know about the police interrogation of witnesses in the 2007 murder of Ichinkhorloo “Iko” Bayarsaikhan; or the medical condition of a council member because he was absent from a meeting; or the details of a former mayor’s emotional state before he committed suicide; or that Jean Sweeney filed a complaint on the Mayor’s home renovations; or that the firefighters filed a grievance with then Fire Chief David Kapler and then brought it to the next step, which was with Interim City Manager Ann Marie Gallant, for terminating the fire boat and water rescue training program?
To know, or not to know? The question still remains, and the answer seems to rest with who is asking the question and their use of the information.
Lena Tam is currently serving her second term on the Alameda City Council.