Grassroots Effort to Make City Hall More Transparent

Originally published in the Westside Observer here

By Richard Knee

Activists aim to get on this November’s local ballot a package of sunshine-law amendments that would, among other things, increase the independence and effectiveness of the city’s 11-member open-government watchdog commission and lessen the ability of public officials to sabotage the commission’s work as happened in 2012.

The grassroots group San Franciscans for Sunshine has drafted a series of revisions to the city’s open-meeting and public-records laws known collectively as the Sunshine Ordinance (Administrative Code Chapter 67) and hopes to put the measure to the voters by collecting upward of 9,500 valid signatures, meaning a “safety” quota approaching 13,000, by July 11.

Failing that, SFS could try to get it on the ballot in a near-future year, maybe even as a Charter amendment, though that would require a lot more money and other resources and political muscle than keeping the ordinance in the city Administrative Code.

Besides giving the commission more power and autonomy, the initiative would bring the Sunshine Ordinance into the 21st century on the technology side, mandating live televising or videostreaming of all policy-body meetings in City Hall and tightening requirements for retention, storage and accessibility of electronic records. The initiative would also prescribe a $500 to $5,000 fine for willful violations of the ordinance.

The measure’s text appears on the home page of the SFS website, It is the product of more than a decade of work by the commission, called the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, drawing on the body’s own experiences and input from dozens of citizens.

The SFS steering committee (disclosure: this writer is on it) comprises current and former task force members and other sunshine activists, most notably Bruce B. Brugmann, the retired Bay Guardian editor who shepherded the original ordinance through the Board of Supervisors in 1993 and helped lead a successful initiative campaign to strengthen it in 1999.

But remaining loopholes in the law and persistent refusal of entities and officials who can enforce it to do so signal people in City Hall that they can violate it without consequence, sunshine advocates say.

On top of that, task force members who vote to find willful violations of the ordinance risk political retaliation. In September 2011, the task force found unanimously that Board of Supervisors President David Chiu and Supervisors Eric Mar, Malia Cohen and Scott Wiener had violated local and state open-meeting laws by ramming through a Parkmerced redevelopment contract with 14 pages of amendments that Chiu had slipped in at the last minute.

The following spring, Chiu, Wiener and Supervisor Mark Farrell orchestrated a purge of the task force resulting in appointments of five neophytes and a former member, David Pilpel, well known for trying to curry favor among elected city officials and department heads.

At the same time, the board failed to appoint anyone with a physical handicap – even though incumbent Bruce Wolfe met that criterion – prompting a deputy city attorney to caution that in light of a requirement in the ordinance that the task force at all times have a physically handicapped member, any actions taken without such a person seated could pose legal risks to the task force and its individual members. The task force had to take a five-month hiatus, exacerbating an already thick backlog of complaint cases.
In 2014, the board’s Rules Committee, which conducts initial vetting of board and commission applicants, recommended reappointment of Pilpel and two other Anglos to the task force and then deferred action on other appointments, saying there wasn’t enough racial/ethnic diversity among the remaining applicants.

Subsequent scathing commentaries in the Westside Observer and the San Francisco Chronicle embarrassed the committee into ending its stall.

The appointments process this year went relatively smoothly, but unless the system is changed, there is no safeguard against recurrence of the 2012 outrage. SFS’s initiative proposes a remedy: expanding to nine from four the number of task force members who must be nominated by outside organizations and requiring the board to appoint all nominees absent clear and convincing evidence that specific individuals are not qualified to serve on the body, which would be renamed the Sunshine Commission.
Also, commissioners’ terms would be staggered beginning in 2019. Currently, most of the terms start and end in even-numbered years. The length of all terms would remain at two years.

Equally important, the initiative would empower the commission to appoint its own executive director/legal counsel and a clerk. Currently, legal and clerical aides are assigned by the city attorney and the Board of Supervisors clerk, respectively, and that has created problems.

Originally, the deputy city attorney assigned to the task force attended all meetings of the task force and its committees and stayed for their duration. Purportedly due to budget constraints, the deputy CA has for about the last decade been attending meetings of the full task force only and must leave at 9 p.m. (meetings usually start at 4 p.m.).

The initiative would give the commission more say in the hours and duties of its staff personnel. It would also enable the commission to exercise quality control in terms of its aides’ competence. The administrator now assigned to the task force, Victor Young, is highly regarded by task force members but a number of them give low marks to the currently assigned deputy CA. And a number of Young’s predecessors were clearly in over their heads.

The measure has support from the League of Women Voters of San Francisco; the First Amendment Coalition, a San Rafael-based free-speech and sunshine advocacy organization; and the Pacific Media Workers Guild (NewsGuild-CWA Local 39521). SFS is seeking additional endorsements.

Richard Knee is a freelance journalist who served on the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force from 2002-2014.

Revamping the Sunshine Ordinance

Under the Sunshine Ordinance, the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force includes an attorney and a journalist nominated by the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter, a journalist nominated by New America Media and a member of the public nominated by the League of Women Voters of San Francisco. The other seven members are directly appointed by the Board of Supervisors.

A ballot initiative sponsored by San Franciscans for Sunshine would rename the body the Sunshine Commission; would, beginning in 2018, increase to nine the number of members nominated by outside public-interest groups; and would mandate that the board appoint all nominees absent clear and convincing evidence that specific nominees are unqualified to serve on the commission. The nominating roles:

☼ SPJ NorCal would continue nominating an attorney and a journalist, and would take over NAM’s authority to nominate a journalist who is with a minority-owned news outlet and/or who is from a racial/ethnic minority or L/G/B/T/Q community. Both organizations are requesting this change.
☼ The First Amendment Coalition would nominate an attorney.
☼ The Media Alliance and the Pacific Media Workers Guild would each nominate a journalist.
☼ The League of Women Voters of San Francisco would continue nominating a member of the public.
☼ The Freedom of the Press Foundation would nominate a member of the public with information-technology expertise.
☼ The Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods would nominate a member of the public.
☼ The Board of Supervisors would directly appoint two members of the public, at least one of whom must have a physical disability.

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