Spin vs. substance

Pub date March 10, 2009
WriterRebecca Bowe


Hollywood paparazzi crews are beginning to follow high-profile politicians, such as Mayor Gavin Newsom, the same way they track the likes of Britney Spears, the San Francisco Chronicle reported recently. And when a celebrity gossip photographer surreptitiously aims the lens at a political leader, the picture that emerges isn’t always flattering.

Likewise, the documents that can be extracted through public records laws — including the federal Freedom of Information Act, California Public Records Act, and San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance — don’t always paint political figures in the most favorable light.

Both end products leave the same impression of a glimpse behind the curtain — consumers feel they’re privy to the raw, unpackaged truth. But while photos may show politicians looking silly or meeting with controversial power brokers, documents show how the people’s business is being conducted. So the willingness of officials to promptly comply with requests for documents and information says a great deal about whether their public statements match their private deeds.

Nathan Ballard, Newsom’s press secretary, characterizes (through e-mail, the medium through which he insists on dealing with the Guardian) the mayor’s commitment to open government as being "as strong or stronger than any public official in this country."

But to hear some proponents of open government tell it — and in our experience here at the Guardian — the Newsom administration keeps much of the mayor’s business under wraps, leaving many info-seekers in the dark or reliant on Ballard’s spin. Responses to requests for public records tend to be delayed and incomplete, and queries directed to the mayor’s office of communications are often returned with terse, one-line e-mails that obscure more than illuminate.

Rick Knee, a longtime member of the city’s Sunshine Ordinance Task Force — the city body charged with upholding the open-government rule — says Newsom has been in violation of the Sunshine Ordinance on several occasions. "Mayor Newsom’s actual practices regarding Sunshine have been, shall we say, less than what one would desire of him," Knee says. Despite those violations, he adds, the mayor "continues to refuse to provide what remedies the task force calls for on his part."

Under Proposition 59, a state constitutional amendment that won overwhelming voter approval in 2004, the records kept by public officials are considered to be "the people’s business." In practice, however, it doesn’t always pan out that way.

For example, a group of citizens informally known as the Sunshine Posse who have made it a personal quest to improve government transparency by peppering city departments with Sunshine requests, have sounded alarm bells over the mayor’s refusal to release a more detailed daily calendar. One Sunshine Posse member began seeking more fleshed-out mayoral itineraries back in 2006, according to group member Christian Holmer, to gain an understanding of whom the mayor had met with and what had been discussed.

But he quickly ran into a slew of difficulties. "The Mayor’s Office ignored our simple request for 255 days," Holmer told the Guardian. "We sent weekly reminders to most of his staff and key members of the city attorney’s executive and government teams for months and months." After bringing the matter to the attention of the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, Holmer says, a new set of problems cropped up. "For the Mayor’s Office, it was an ongoing tale of crashed hard drives, changing office personnel, lost documents, overt/covert confusion, and best intentions."

Nearly three years later, the scrutinizing crew remains frustrated with the results, saying the Mayor’s Office has only come forth with a watered-down schedule, called the Prop. G calendar ("scrubbed" and "virtually useless," in Holmer’s opinion), rather than the more descriptive document known as the working calendar. Many days, Newsom’s Prop. G calendar is blank, and seldom is there more than a few hours worth of activities, each one usually described in just a few words.

The Prop. G calendar seeks to comply with the minimum standards for calendars set forth in the city’s 1999 sunshine law: "The mayor … shall keep or cause to be kept a daily calendar wherein is recorded the time and place of each meeting or event attended by that official…. For meetings not otherwise publicly recorded, the calendar shall include a general statement of issues discussed."

The working calendar is a confidential document, the Mayor’s Office held in a letter responding to the Sunshine Posse’s complaint that the mayor was withholding public information. "The Mayor’s Office prepares a working calendar that is extremely detailed and accounts for his time from departure from home until his return in the evening," the letter states. "The working calendar contains not only the mayor’s meeting schedule, but also confidential information such as the officers assigned to protect him, security contact numbers, the mayor’s private schedule, details of his travel [etc.]. As with past administrations, the mayor’s staff keeps the working calendar and its contents confidential…. The computer system automatically deletes the working calendar after five days."

Despite this defense, the task force determined that the working calendar is in fact a public document that should be provided to the citizens. Doug Comstock was task force chair when the issue was heard. "We made it very clear that they have to turn over those documents," he says. "If there’s a document that’s being created using public monies and public funds, that is a more specific calendar, that’s the document that needs to be provided." Comstock also noted that it is possible for the Mayor’s Office to redact sensitive information that could pose a security risk. Nonetheless, he says, three years have passed and "the real calendar remains hidden from view."

When asked about the complaints regarding the calendar, Ballard responded, "Their criticism is baseless. We exceed far [sic] the requirements of the Sunshine Ordinance with the level of disclosure that we provide."

Erica Craven, an attorney who sits on the task force, believes there’s room for improvement on the mayor’s practices regarding sunshine. "My instinct is that there are a lot of people who work in the Mayor’s Office who are committed to open government," she says. "But there are some troubling things we’ve seen as well, such as complaints where the Mayor’s Office hasn’t sent a representative to respond to allegations. I would like to see a little bit more commitment and leadership on open government from the Mayor’s Office — I think it would set a good tone in City Hall."

In recent weeks, interest in the mayor’s schedule has intensified once again in light of the city’s financial predicament. In the face of a looming budget deficit of unprecedented size and with the economy in shambles and jobs at stake, journalists and affected citizens are seeking details about how the conundrum is being dealt with inside City Hall.

Last month, the Guardian filed a request under the Sunshine Ordinance for details on the mayor’s meetings about the budget, asking for "a list of all the labor and business leaders and supervisors that he’s met with about the budget, the dates of those meetings and how long they lasted, all documents associated with those meetings (including any agendas, communications to set up those meetings and follow-up communications after the meetings), and summaries of what was discussed at those meetings, including any outcomes or agreements."

Under the Sunshine Ordinance, such "immediate disclosure" requests are supposed be honored in two days’ time, but it took five days and a Guardian reminder for the Mayor’s Office to respond via e-mail, saying: "As you know, the Sunshine Ordinance does not require us to create documents. If you can point to a specific document that you’re seeking, I’d be happy to try and locate it for you."

Three days later, the Mayor’s Office forwarded the Prop. G calendar, which revealed that the mayor booked 7.5 hours of meetings about the budget crisis over the course of 17 days, none with labor representatives (whom Ballard said Newsom had met with). It included one-line entries disclosing whom he met with and when, but no information concerning the substance of the discussion. When the Guardian pressed for more information, the Mayor’s Office said there were no other documents associated with those meetings or any other information they were willing to provide.

Similarly, just last week, the Guardian tried to find out what the Mayor’s Office was doing about reports that Caltrain and the California High-Speed Rail Authority were balking at using the Transbay Terminal, citing technical concerns. On March 6, we asked who was working on the issue, what communications there had been with these agencies, and other basic information.

Ballard would say only that "The mayor is fully engaged in finding a comprehensive regional solution that ensures that high speed rail will come to the Transbay Terminal," and denied further requests for more substantive information.

Ballard acknowledges that the Mayor’s Office has "occasionally" been found to be in violation of the city’s Sunshine Ordinance. However, he noted, "I can’t remember a time when the Ethics Commission did not overturn a task force decision against our office. In other words, most if not all task force decisions against us have, upon review, been found to be without merit."

Actually, the chronically under-funded Ethics Commission isn’t charged with judging whether SOTF findings have merit. The SOTF is the arbiter of whether the Sunshine Ordinance was violated, but it has no enforcement authority and therefore must rely on Ethics to pursue violations — if it has the will and resources to do so.

This touches on a trend that Knee says is a fundamental challenge to upholding the Sunshine Ordinance. "If the [task force] finds that there has been a willful violation … we can refer our findings to any or all of four entities: Ethics, the Board of Supervisors, the District Attorney, and the California Attorney General," Knee explains. "At one time or another we have made referrals to any or all of those organizations. And every single time, those entities have thrown out our findings. Not one complaint we have submitted has been upheld."

To remedy this, he says, a package of proposed reforms is in the works. "We want to give the task force some teeth," he says. "We want enforcement power of our own."

Steven T. Jones contributed to this report.