As of September 5th, 2016, Californians Aware (CalAware: The Center for Public Forum Rights) has endorsed San Franciscans for Sunshine’s efforts towards Sunshine Ordinance reform.
Originally published as part of the League of Women Voters newsletter
by Allyson Washburn
In an earlier article in the newsletter, I presented a brief history of San Francisco’s Sunshine Ordinance and the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force (TF), an eleven-member commission established to, among other duties, develop and update procedures to implement the Ordinance. Beginning at least 10 years ago, the Task Force drafted numerous amendments to the ordinance in an effort to clarify some of the language and to address various issues that had surfaced through complaints brought by members of the public through the TF hearing process.
Several examples of specific changes proposed to date:
- To Article II: Public Access to Meetings Changes
Documents subject to adoption during a meeting must be made available 48 hours before a meeting, or be continued to a subsequent meeting.
- To Article III: Public Information and Public Records Changes
Each City agency to designate a custodian of records, with identified departmental deputy(s) as backup. Individual custodians are still responsible for records they handle.
Public information withheld must be described and provide specific justification for withholding.
- To Article IV: Policy Implementation
Sunshine Ordinance Task Force Renamed to the “Sunshine Commission” as an independent body not part of or subject to the oversight of any of other branch of the City government.
Since the first of the year, a small but growing group of former TF members, Sunshine advocates and activists and League members—Maxine Anderson, Heather Sterner (former TF member), Leuwam Tesfai (soon-to-be TF member), and me, Allyson Washburn (current TF chair)—have been meeting to develop a strategy for amending, and strengthening, the ordinance through a measure on the November ballot. To date, much of the discussion has been about the pros and cons of (1) a Charter amendment versus an ordinance and (2) a voter initiative, which would involve a petition drive, versus obtaining support from the requisite number of Supervisors who would then put the measure on the ballot. We have not yet settled on a path to the ballot. Opinions about the best course vary, so for now we are keeping our options open until time, money, and politics—internal and external—start to prune some of them off.
FYI: To qualify an initiative for a Charter amendment, we would need at least 43,280 valid signatures—10% of San Franciscans registered to vote on 2/25/15—compared to 9485—5% of the votes cast for the Mayor in the most recent mayoral election—for an ordinance.
In the meantime, earlier versions of the amended ordinance are being reviewed and additional amendments drafted for what could be put forth as either a Charter Amendment or an ordinance. Leuwam will be vetting these proposed changes to identify possible inconsistencies among various sections of the ordinance, as well as areas that may be legally problematic. I have scheduled hearings on the proposed amendments at meetings of the Compliance and Amendments Committee of the TF on Tuesday, Feb. 16th and of the full TF on Wednesday, March 2nd. The document will be part of the meeting packets, which will be available on the SFGov website at least 72 hours before the meetings (per Section 67.7(a) of the Sunshine Ordinance). If you are interested in attending one of these meetings but are unable to make it, the audio recordings are posted within 72 hours (per Section 67.14(c) of the Ordinance). These hearings are informational at this point.
Watch this space for updates on the 2016 push for more open and accountable government in San Francisco!
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, SanFranciscansForSunshine.org. 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.
Originally published in the Westside Observer here in December 2011
by Hope Johnson
Lurking in the darkest corners of San Francisco’s Parkmerced Development Agreement is the question of enforceability of the agreement’s rent control provision. The elusive answer remains shadowed in odd mystery, and the Board of Supervisors has done little to shed much needed light on the controversial issue.
Can the City require replacement of existing rent controlled housing scheduled for demolition?
California’s Costa-Hawkins Act prevents local regulations from requiring rent control on new construction. Rent control on the new apartments might make the project economically impractical.
But the City Attorney’s Office position is that rent control is part of the contract, and there is no reason to believe the contract will be violated or challenged. Despite that assurance, the Board of Supervisors spent several hours discussing the enforceability question during its March 29, 2011 hearing on appeal of the Planning Commission’s 4-3 vote approval of the environmental impact report.
The Board ultimately chose to continue their decision on the appeal to May 24th to allow time to consider the oddly mysterious legal standing of the City to enforce such a condition.Parkmerced
Meanwhile, the Parkmerced Development Agreement itself was assigned to the Board’s Land Use Committee for May 16, 2011. Committee Chair Eric Mar opened the meeting by explaining that, because the item had been improperly noticed, no action could be taken—the item would be continued to the committee’s May 24th hearing.
Supervisor Sean Elsbernd introduced “technical amendments” to the agreement. Discussion ensued, including enforceability of the rent control provision and Chair Mar’s concern that energy consumption might need revision. Members of the public were provided copies of the revised agreement and were told it would be available online later that day.
The newly introduced amendments were then approved by the committee, notwithstanding Chair Mar’s repeated declaration that no action would be taken on the agreement until May 24th.
One week later, on May 24th, two separate meetings were scheduled that involved approval of the Parkmerced project, one was the Land Use Committee’s continued discussion at 9 am and the other was the regularly scheduled meeting of the full Board of Supervisors later that same day at 2 pm. The Land Use Committee was to make a referral on the agreement to the Board. The Board was then scheduled to vote on approval of both the Parkmerced environmental impact report and the Development Agreement itself.
At the May 24th Land Use Committee, a brief presentation of the amendments previously introduced at the May 16th hearing was provided. Then Supervisor David Chiu introduced fourteen pages of new amendments specifically directed at tenants’ rights—the murky subject at issue for two months. These new amendments were not mentioned at the beginning of the hearing or at the meeting one week prior.
Supervisor Chiu said he and city attorney Charles Sullivan had stayed awake all night working on the amendments and Supervisor Cohen, a member of the committee, admitted she had only had about one hour to review the newly introduced amendments. Chair Mar expressed concern with a lack of transparency and that approval of the amendments would constitute a violation of Sunshine Ordinance public comment requirements.
The city attorney told the committee the agenda description of the Development Agreement was broad enough to encompass Chiu’s amendments. The amendments were approved, leaving only a few hours for the public to review and comment on amendments to a contract provision the Board had allowed itself two months to review. Several hours later on the same day, the Development Agreement was approved by the full Board.
On June 20, 2011, an anonymous complaint was filed with the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force against Supervisor Mar for alleged violations of the Sunshine Ordinance.
The Sunshine Ordinance Task Force concluded that the last minute introduction of fourteen pages of amendments did not provide adequate time for members of the public to review and comment on them as required under Sunshine Ordinance Sections 67.15(a) and (b), and were substantive changes to the Development Agreement for which the agenda description for the meeting was not adequate under Sunshine Ordinance Section 67.7(b).
Supervisors Eric Mar, David Chiu, Scott Wiener, and Malia Cohen were found in violation of those sections of the ordinance. Each supervisor is required to adhere to state and local open government laws, and their acknowledgement of their own lack of review of important and controversial amendments was minimal at best.
The Parkmerced Development Agreement had been deferred two additional months for review and there was no reason that another week to allow transparency in the process would damage the agreement. This project is scheduled to take up to 30 years to complete and many residents will be displaced from their homes in the process.
Big government isn’t the problem.
Secret government is the problem.
Originally published in the League of Women Voters newsletter
by Allyson Washburn
This is the first of a series of articles about the Sunshine Ordinance and the work of the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, the commission established to, among other duties, develop and update procedures to implement the Ordinance.
Section 67.1.(f) The people of San Francisco enact these amendments to assure that the people of the City remain in control of the government they have created.
San Francisco Administrative Code Chapter 67—the Sunshine Ordinance—is San Francisco’s open government law, enacted in 1993 by the Board of Supervisors and signed by former Mayor Frank Jordan. San Francisco voters amended and approved the current version of the Ordinance in November 1999 as Proposition G. The ordinance is based on the California Public Records Act and the state open meetings law, which is known as the Ralph M. Brown Act. It draws additional authority from Article I, Section 3 of the California Constitution and is intended to ensure and broaden the public’s access to local government guaranteed by state law.
For a copy of the Sunshine Ordinance, which identifies sections added in 1999 with the passage of Proposition G, go to:
To my knowledge, San Francisco’s Sunshine Ordinance is the nation’s oldest municipal law on government transparency. At least eight other local governments in California have enacted ordinances that, like ours, provide greater right of public access than state law. With the exception of Riverside, all of these county or municipal governments are in the nine-county Bay Area. For more information:
The Sunshine Ordinance Task Force (Meets at 4 pm the first Wednesday of the month in Room 408, City Hall)
The Sunshine Ordinance Task Force (SOTF) was established pursuant to Sunshine Ordinance Section 67.30 to promote transparency and accountability in City government.
The 11 members of the SOTF are appointed by the Board of Supervisors (BOS) following requirements outlined in the Sunshine Ordinance. Members serve for two-year terms without pay or expense reimbursement; there is no term limit. The following organizations submit nominees for several of the seats on the Task Force: The Society of Professional Journalism (Seats 1 and 2), New America Media (Seat 4), and the League of Women Voters (Seat 5). I have served on the Task Force since 2008 and am the current Chair. My LWVSF predecessors were Kristin Chiu and Heather Sterner.
In the next article in this series, I will outline some of the major provisions of the Sunshine Ordinance and begin to address ways in which it might be strengthened through amendments.
San Franciscans for Sunshine initial Press Release:
We are pleased to launch our new website!
Browse around for information on the Sunshine Ordinance and the work of San Franciscans for Sunshine.