Fixing SF’s sunshine problems

Pub date June 19, 2012

EDITORIAL Open-government advocates are circulating a series of amendments to the city’s landmark Sunshine Ordinance, and a lot of them make perfect sense. In general, the changes bring the law up to date — and deal with the ongoing and increasing frustration over the lack of enforcement that has rendered toothless one of the most progressive open-government laws in the nation.

The advocates are trying to find four supervisors to place the measure on the November ballot. It won’t be easy: Already, the City Attorney’s Office has circulated a memo arguing that some of the amendments conflict with state law or the City Charter.

And in the background, Sup. Scott Wiener is looking to take another approach to open-government, asking city departments to examine the costs of complying with the existing law — which could easily become an argument for loosening the rules.

The new disclosure rules are relatively modest. A policy body would have to release all documents relevant to a decision 48 hours in advance of a meeting. Documents that include metadata — tracked changes and other digital information — would have to be released in full. Regulations on closed meetings around pending legal issues would be tightened.

But the bulk of the changes have to do with enforcing the law — and that’s where the battle lines are going to be drawn. The measure would create a powerful supervisor of public records, appointed by the city attorney, who would be directed to review all denials of public records — and who, by law, would be ordered to “not consider as authority any position taken by the city attorney.” That seeks to address a key shortfall in existing law — the City Attorney’s Office, which (like most law firms) is often driven by privacy and confidentiality, advises city agencies on what records can be withheld, and city officials who refuse to release documents simply say they were following the advice of their attorney.

The proposal would turn the Sunshine Task Force into an independent commission, some of whose appointments wouldn’t be subject to any official review. The commission would have extensive new authority to levy fines on city employees who it finds in violation of the sunshine law and to force the Ethics Commission — which routinely ignores sunshine violations — to take action against offenders.

The idea, of course, is to mandate consequences for violating the Sunshine Ordinance, which is flouted on a regular basis by public officials who pay no penalty and thus have no real reason to comply. But increasing the scope and certainty of punishment is one side of the coin — and if there were better ways to ensure compliance, none of that would be necessary.

In Connecticut, a state Freedom of Information Commission has the statutory authority to require any government agency to release a document or open a meeting. The panel doesn’t punish people; it obviates that whole process. And it would be much, much easier to get beyond the penalties and simply create a legal process that allowed the Sunshine Commission full authority to order public agencies to comply with its rulings. The commission rules that a meeting was illegally closed? Tapes of that meeting must be released, at once. Documents improperly withheld? Cough them up, now. The only appeal city officials would have: go to court and seek a secrecy order. If the supervisors and other city officials think the proposed rules go too far, they can refuse to put this measure on the ballot, but that be ducking the clear and obvious problems. And there’s an easy solution: Give the Sunshine Commission the same power as the FOI panel in Connecticut, which has operated just fine for more than 30 years.