Newsom, it’s time to end the Sunshine wars

Pub date August 1, 2006

EDITORIAL For months now, Mayor Gavin Newsom’s press office has been fighting with Sup. Chris Daly over a series of internal memos that Daly claims ought to be public record. The memos involve the mayor’s position on tenant legislation that would make some kinds of evictions more difficult.
Daly had to take the case to the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, which held a hearing and deliberated for more than an hour before finding the Mayor’s Office in violation of the law. And still, Daly — an elected official — couldn’t get a copy of the memos.
Then on July 29, Guardian reporter Amanda Witherell confronted Newsom outside a town hall meeting in the Richmond District. The mayor said he wasn’t even aware of the details of the battle — then promptly ordered his press office to release the records (see “Sunburned,” page 15).
Good for Newsom — but why did it take this long? Why did Daly, the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, and no doubt the City Attorney’s Office have to spend so much time on a fight that clearly made no sense?
Unfortunately, this is symptomatic of how the Mayor’s Office — and so many other city agencies — is handling public-records requests: it’s a struggle for anyone to get anything.
A handful of aggressive, single-minded activists like Kimo Crossman, who is trying to get records on the city’s wi-fi negotiations, have been driving the Mayor’s Office and City Attorney Dennis Herrera crazy with reams of document requests. Why? Because they’ve asked for some simple, basic stuff — and have been refused. Thousands of hours of city time have been wasted fighting battles that don’t need to be fought.
Newsom can put an end to a lot of this pretty quickly. He should announce that he’s told the press office to comply immediately with every public-records request unless there is a clear, serious reason to withhold the information — and he should make it clear that he wants to be personally informed any time a request is denied so that he can make the final determination.
Newsom should also direct every city department under his jurisdiction to follow the same policies and support reforms in the Sunshine Ordinance to end all of these delays. SFBG