EDITORIAL It’s been, to put it mildly, a terrible year for open government. The climate of secrecy in Washington, DC, has only increased: from clandestine spying on antiwar protesters to secretive immigration raids to a huge growth in document classification, the nation’s capital has shifted squarely into the dark ages. As G.W. Schulz reports ("100 Years of Secrets," page 22), there’s even an attempt in Congress to create a new official secrets act, with stiff criminal penalties for people who disclose information the government doesn’t want the public to know.
In California the governor has vetoed a public-records bill backed by all 120 legislators, and the State Supreme Court issued one of the worst rulings in its history, ensuring that virtually all police disciplinary records will forever be hidden from public view.
San Francisco has its problems too. The Sunshine Ordinance still has some significant loopholes and as Amanda Witherell reports ("The Sunshine Posse," page 20), a cadre of sunshine activists is working overtime to try to force the city to comply with its own rules and to demand that electronic documents get the same treatment as paper records.
So there’s a lot of work to do. But the good news is that there are legislative and grassroots efforts on many fronts to turn the tide back. Some of the key points:
In Washington: The Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, along with other sunshine advocates, is pushing a bill by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. John Cornyn (R-Texas) that would greatly strengthen the federal Freedom of Information Act. The bill would require federal agencies to expedite FOIA requests and allow requesters to seek attorney’s fees if the government forces them to go to court. The GOP-led Congress blocked it last year, and the Bush administration has always opposed it, but with the Democrats in control, it’s likely to get through both houses this spring.
Meanwhile, Sen. John Kyl (R-Ariz.) tried last month to push a bill that would impose criminal penalties for unauthorized leaking of government information. He’s backed off somewhat, but that threat remains. It’s crucial that San Franciscans contact Sen. Dianne Feinstein (who sits on the Judiciary Committee) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi to demand that the FOIA bill pass and that Kyl’s proposal die.
In Sacramento: Assemblymember Mark Leno has introduced a bill that would override the devastating Supreme Court decision on police records. The measure, AB 1648, would once again allow public access to information about the extent of police officer discipline and would permit agencies such as the San Francisco Police Commission to hold some disciplinary hearings in public. It’s a crucial bill; cloaking all discussion of problematic cops in a veil of secrecy undermines public trust in law enforcement, perpetuates poor management, and protects abusive officers. The legislature needs to pass it quickly. Leno has also reintroduced his Public Records Act reform bill, AB 1393, with a few amendments to address technical problems that the Governor’s Office claimed to have with last year’s bill. This time Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has no excuse not to sign it.
In San Francisco: It’s still far too hard for members of the public to get basic information from city departments. The Sunshine Ordinance Task Force needs to have the authority to mandate that agencies follow its decisions; an attempt to make that happen three years ago failed when the supervisors balked at empowering the sunshine panel. The task force lacks the full-time staffer mandated in the ordinance.
The task force should bring its proposals back to the board, and one of the supervisors needs to step up as an open-government advocate and bring that proposal back. If the task force had any teeth or if the Ethics Commission or district attorney would enforce the existing law, these battles wouldn’t be necessary. *