Newsom’s state secrets

Pub date March 10, 2009
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL On January 21st, his second day in office, President Barack Obama announced that he was dramatically changing the rules on federal government secrecy. His statement directly reversed, and repudiated, the paranoia and backroom dealings of the Bush administration.

"The Freedom of Information Act," the new president declared, "should be administered with a clear presumption: in the face of doubt, openness prevails. The government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve. In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public."

The following day, Jan. 22, we sent an e-mail to Mayor Gavin Newsom’s press secretary, Nathan Ballard. "Now that President Obama has made a dramatic change in federal FOI policy," we asked, "would Mayor Newsom would be willing to issue a similar executive order in San Francisco?"

Ballard’s response:

"We wholeheartedly agree with the President on this issue. The mayor has charged my office with handling sunshine requests for the executive branch of city government, and he has directed us to cooperate swiftly and comprehensively to all sunshine requests, and to err on the side of openness."

That, to put it politely, is horsepucky.

As we report in this issue, it’s difficult, and at times insanely difficult, to get even basic public information out of Newsom’s office. Take his calendar: by law, the mayor is required to make public his appointments calendar. Other public officials manage to do that — in fact, the president of the United States, who has a tad more national and personal security issues than the mayor of San Francisco, lets the press know what he’s doing almost every minute of every day.

Most days, though, what we get from Newsom’s office is a statement like, "The mayor has no public events scheduled today." Or, "The mayor is holding meetings at City Hall." Meetings with whom? What private events is he attending? What’s he do all day? What lobbyists, activists, public officials, or campaign donors is he talking to in his City Hall office? Why is that some huge state secret?

Or take the city’s terrifying budget problems. When Board of Supervisors President David Chiu began holding meetings with key stakeholders to look for a solution, Newsom refused to show up, saying there was no need. The mayor claimed he was holding his own meetings with everyone who needed to be involved.

That was news to many of the people in Chiu’s sessions. So who was the mayor talking to? The mayor’s office won’t tell us — and the limited calendar information he releases doesn’t shed any light, either.

The San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance Task Force has repeatedly found Newsom directly in violation of the Sunshine Ordinance. Legions of reporters have run across the slammed door, the ducking, the non-responsiveness, and the general hostility of the mayor’s press office. As the White House comes out of the dark ages and starts to set new standards for open and honest government, San Francisco is not only lagging behind — this city’s chief executive is actively resisting.

We’re getting tired of this. The city attorney, district attorney, and Ethics Commission all have the mandate and ability to enforce the Sunshine Ordinance, but none have made that a priority. At this point, the only way the executive branch is going to comply is if the supervisors give the Sunshine Task Force the authority and resources to do its own enforcement.

In the meantime, somebody on the board ought to introduce Obama’s exact policy statement, replacing "Freedom of Information Act" with "San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance." And the Sunshine task force should begin an investigation into how the mayor’s press office is defying, on a regular basis, both the letter and the spirit of the city’s open-government law. *