Newsom axes sunshine

Pub date May 6, 2008
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL Shortly before he left on a trip to Israel last week, Mayor Gavin Newsom quietly vetoed a bill that would have greatly expanded public access to the workings of San Francisco government. The supervisors need to override that veto as quickly as possible.

The measure, by Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, seems so simple that it’s hard to imagine why it would be controversial. Mirkarimi wants the city to audiotape or videotape any meeting of any public agency at City Hall, and post that tape on the Web within 72 hours.

That would make it much easier for people following local government actions to see or hear the actual testimony and discussion at board and commission meetings, most of which take place during the day when people with jobs can’t attend. The Board of Supervisors meetings are televised, as are most board committee meetings, but dozens of other agencies meet regularly with few people attending and virtually no press coverage. And there’s no easy way to find out exactly what went on at those meetings.

Posting the recordings on the Web is part of a larger agenda promoted by sunshine advocates who want to see the city use easily available and inexpensive modern technology to promote open government (see Sunshine in the digital age, 3/12/08). Among their proposals: at the very least, post and stream the audio portion of all meetings on the Internet. Most meetings are already recorded anyway, and all the meeting rooms are equipped with recording gear. But those recordings aren’t easy to access. The only way to get a copy of the proceedings is to send $10 for a DVD and $1 for an audiotape to the city, then wait a week for your media to arrive in the mail. How hard could it be to put that material on the Web?

Sunshine activists want to go a lot further. They suggest, for example, that every document and e-mail created by a city employee be sent automatically to a public server where it can be viewed over the Internet. And if there was adequate wi-fi service at City Hall (there isn’t), bloggers could post video of the meetings themselves.

Mirkarimi’s bill didn’t go anywhere near that far. All he asked was that the meetings that take place in rooms equipped for audio or video taping be recorded and that the files be placed on the Web. The total cost was pegged at $131,000 per year, but the city’s cable-TV franchise deal would require Comcast to pay $55,000 for the necessary new equipment. So the final tab would be only $72,000 a year. That’s such a minuscule percentage of the city’s $5 billion budget that it fits into the category of what Mirkarimi calls "decimal dust."

And yet in an April 30 veto message, Newsom said he found the cost too high. "I would urge the Board of Supervisors to hold off on new spending initiatives" until the next budget cycle, he said.

That’s crazy. We recognize that money is tight, but Newsom has pushed all sorts of new programs and initiatives that cost more than $72,000. In fact, he spent almost twice that much ($139,700) gussying up his office back in January.

Four supervisors voted against Mirkarimi’s bill: Carmen Chu, Sean Elsbernd, Jake McGoldrick, and Michela Alioto-Pier, so Mirkarimi appears to have seven votes to override the veto. It will take one more — one more supervisor willing to stand up for open government — to make this program happen. It’s embarrassing to see neighborhood supervisors voting against sunshine. Call the four and demand they vote to override. Chu: 554-7460. Elsbernd: 554-6516. McGoldrick: 554-7410. Alioto-Pier: 554-7752.