Making sunshine work

Pub date May 5, 2009
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL The Sunshine Ordinance Task Force and the Ethics Commission are talking to each other, which is some small progress on one of the most annoying lingering issues in San Francisco. But the joint meeting last week, while positive in tone, didn’t solve the basic problem.

Under the city’s Sunshine Ordinance, the task force investigates complaints about city agencies improperly withholding records or meeting in secret. If the task force members find that there’s been a violation — and that the matter is serious enough to merit enforcement action against the city officials involved — the file is forwarded to Ethics, which can charge elected and appointed officials with misconduct.

But that never happens.

Fourteen times the task force has asked Ethics for action, and 14 times those cases have been dismissed — with little serious investigation. In fact, at the April 24 meeting, John St. Croix, the executive director of Ethics, admitted that his staff doesn’t always interview the complainants in these cases. Instead, Ethics asks the respondent for his or her side, and relies heavily on the advice of the city attorney.

That’s a problem in itself, because sometimes City Attorney Dennis Herrera will advise a department to keep something secret when the task force — which has its own lawyer, also from the City Attorney’s Office — disagrees. And in some cases it’s very clear that city officials have willfully ignored, defied, or sought to circumvent the open-government law.

Mayor Newsom, for example, refuses to release his full appointments calendar, which would show the public whom he’s meeting with — a key way for San Franciscans to understand who is influencing, and seeking to influence, city policy. The New York Times just published a detailed investigative report on Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s ties to Wall Street financiers, basing the story in significant part on a review of Geithner’s appointment calendars. The New York City Federal Reserve Bank — a secretive institution if ever there was one — released the calendars of Geithner’s appointments when he was bank president. Newsom can certainly do the same, and the law requires him to. But he simply ignores that mandate.

The district attorney also has the authority to enforce the law, but has never filed a single sunshine violation case.

The San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance is supposed to be the best and most comprehensive law in the state ensuring public access to government activities. But it’s rendered almost meaningless when city officials can defy it, routinely, and suffer no consequences.

The current enforcement system is simply not working. The supervisors should hold hearings on this with the goal of placing a charter amendment on the ballot giving the task force the independent authority to order documents released and adopting a more effective way to sanction officials who disregard the law. The task force should also have the right to take cases directly to the Ethics commissioners and prosecute them in public before the full commission. It’s the biggest open government issue in the city right now. Which supe wants to take it on? *