Locals ponder public's right to know at forum

In the throes of a politically charged election year, the rights of all citizens to access fair and balanced information may get lost in the shuffle of sound bytes and party line promises.

But at one area event held Saturday, freedom of information and the public's right to know was front and center as panelists and citizens contemplated what it means to be educated and informed in the modern era.

In a community forum, “Access to Impact: Using Open Government to Create Change,” members of the League of Women Voters Pasadena Area presented participants with several viewpoints on the importance of keeping a citizenry informed.

The forum was scheduled during National Sunshine Week (March 14 to 20), a designated period for recognizing the rights of all citizens to access information and face time with the public officials hired and elected to serve them.

“We need to be co-creators of these policies that affect people in our communities,” said Monica Hubbard, director of social policy for the League of Women Voters.

The event included a panel discussion moderated by Pete Peterson, executive director of Common Sense California, an organization dedicated to increasing civic engagement. Panelist and Pasadena librarian Jan Sanders talked about the role of libraries as public information hubs, while Pasadena Star News Public Editor Larry Wilson touched on the rise of Web journalism and the impact that non-regulation in the blogosphere has on the information created therein.

Pasadena City Attorney Michele Beal Bagneris discussed determining when the public has a right to know something and when it may not. That last point inspired heated discussion, as a Star News editorial published that same day criticized Bagneris and the city of Pasadena for failing to release the identities of a panel selected to choose a new police chief, even after submission of public records request.

Regardless of viewpoint, all Americans should engage in the working of their communities, shared panel speaker Hedab Tarifi, vice chairperson for the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Tarifi came to the United States in the 1990s from Kuwait and recently became an American citizen.

“You cannot think that you, as an individual, have a low or weak voice,” she told the crowd. “One voice does count.”

In the breakout session, participants lent their voices to discussions on the advent of Internet technology as a means of accessing political information and how citizens could work together to stay educated.

“Often, it just takes one person who is dedicated and moves ahead to establish something and get it done,” Altadena resident Barbara Nyberg shared with her group. “The question is: How do you encourage people to get out there and have their voices heard?”

Many agreed that the mantle of responsibility will fall on the shoulders of future generations. Pasadena City College student Rachel Koestartyo, who attended the forum at the advice of her political science teacher, agreed her peers would benefit from similar events, but admitted most information seeking is done privately on the Internet. “Without (the Internet), I don't know where to find some information,” she said.

Groups reported the results of their talks, which included practical suggestions for how lawmakers could reach out to constituents in more meaningful ways. These suggestions were compiled in a written list, which will be sent to the mayors and city managers of all 10 cities that the League of Women Voters represents, including La Cañada Flintridge, Hubbard said after the meeting.

“It's not stopping here. The collective wisdom in the room will be heard by decision makers,” she said.

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