Sunshine smoke screens

Pub date April 18, 2006
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL There are danger signals coming out of City Hall these days, some not-so-subtle indications that the city’s open-government laws might be quietly coming under attack. Consider:

The City Attorney’s Office has filed an action in Superior Court to have library activist James Chaffee declared a "vexatious litigant." That would stop Chaffee from filing any more legal actions to try to force the Library Commission which has a terrible record on open government issues to comply with state and local laws.

Chaffee is a former chair of the Sunshine Task Force. In 1999 and 2002, he filed a string of suits against the library (all of them lost, the city says) and he’s filed a few actions since then. He’s acted as his own attorney in almost every case. Some of them, frankly, were a little obscure: Changing the public-comment time at a meeting from three minutes to two minutes isn’t the sort of thing that typically requires a lawsuit to resolve. But his work, in and out of court for 31 years, has unquestionably had a positive impact on library openness and has infuriated the Library Commission, which is pushing this action. Chaffee’s last lawsuit was filed more than a year ago. Why go after him now?

The Chaffee litigation comes at the same time as a Sunshine Task Force committee has been quietly discussing ways to handle activists who file repeated, numerous, and extensive records requests. The target in that case is Kimo Crossman, who has filed dozens of requests seeking information related to the city’s dealings with WiFi contractors. We realize he’s flooded the City Attorney’s Office with requests, and it’s costing the city a whole lot of money to deal with them. But his basic point that the entire WiFi contract talks have been far too secretive is absolutely true.

And the question never came before the entire task force, which should have had an open, well-publicized discussion on the issue and sought ways to address it. Instead, David Pilpel, chair of the task force’s Education, Outreach, and Training Committee, called a special hearing on the matter March 22. The meeting, on "abusive, burdensome, excessive, and/or harassing" records requests, was poorly noticed and poorly attended, and Pilpel gave the City Attorney’s Office and the library plenty of time to make their cases, while limiting Crossman and Chaffee to three minutes each.

The full task force essentially rebuked Pilpel at the next meeting, March 28, and task force attorney Ernest Llorente has drafted new rules for special meetings.

Meanwhile, Sunshine Task Force chair Doug Comstock may lose his seat. The supervisors have reappointed all of the sitting task force members except Comstock; Sup. Sean Elsbernd is making an issue of Comstock’s role as a campaign consultant. This one ought to be simple: Comstock was a key part of the campaign to pass the Sunshine Initiative in the first place, led the effort on the latest round of reforms, has been an excellent chair and has been on the public-interest side of every significant issue that’s come before him.

All of this backroom dealing and overreaction has us worried. The issue of "excessive" public records requests is tricky and has the potential to lead to some terrible legislation or rules. It needs a lot more public discussion; the task force ought to schedule a full hearing on it, with plenty of time to thrash out all sides, before anyone proposes any possible solutions. There’s no need to go to court against Chaffee right now, and it sets a bad precedent. City Attorney Dennis Herrera ought to drop the case and tell the Library Commission that it ought to act like open government matters and if it wants to silence critics, it can find the money to hire its own lawyers.

And the supervisors need to reappoint Comstock, who is exactly the kind of person the task force needs as a leader at a critical time like this for open government. SFBG

For more background, including an open letter from Chaffee and the City Attorney’s motion, go to