Saving money on sunshine

Pub date February 14, 2012

EDITORIAL We hate to pick on Scott Wiener, who is a polite guy who always takes our calls and takes public policy seriously. He’s got an extensive legislative agenda — good for him — and he’s effective at getting bills passed. We’re with him on nightlife, and even on nudity towels in the Castro.

But he’s been taking on some more disturbing causes of late — he’s managed to tighten the rules for the use of Harvey Milk Plaza and now he’s asking for an audit of the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force that looks at how much each city department spends responding to sunshine requests. We’re not against audits or government efficiency, but this could lead to a lot of mischief.

There are plenty of problems with the task force, which hears complaints against city agencies that are denying the public access to documents. The biggest problem is that the task force has no enforcement authority — when the members find an agency or official to have willfully defied the law, the best they can do is turn those findings over to the Ethics Commission, which simply drops the case. Nobody ever gets charged with anything or gets in any trouble for refusing to follow what every public official in town piously insists is an excellent law.

And yeah, the meetings run long, and sometimes city employees have to sit around for hours waiting for their cases to come up. (Activists who testify before city commissions are used to that, but city employees are on the clock, and Wiener’s worried that it’s running up a large bill.)

But nobody’s talking about the money that the city has saved by those annoying government watchdogs keeping an eye on public spending — through the use of the Sunshine Ordinance. Nor is anyone talking about the immense amount of time activists and journalists have to spend fighting over records that should have been public in the first place — or how much money the Task Force has saved the city by creating a forum for resolving these issues out of court.

We can see the outcome here: The audit will show some large number, some cash amount with a bunch of zeros behind it, and the Chronicle will run a big headline about the high cost of this sunshine bureaucracy — and someone will suggest we find ways to streamline the process by clipping the task force’s wings.

That’s the wrong approach — particularly when there’s a much easier answer. Why not do what sunshine activists have suggested for years — make electronic copies of every document created by any city agency and post them in a database on the web? No more secrecy, no more hassle. It’s easy — if anyone at City Hall is serious about saving money on sunshine requests.