Shutting down Sunshine

Pub date July 17, 2012

EDITORIAL The unwillingness of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to follow the City Charter’s rules on open government has reached a new level of absurdity: The Sunshine Ordinance Task Force voted July 11 to stop meeting, because the supervisors wouldn’t appoint the legally mandated members.

Technically, the fuss is over a provision in the law creating the Task Force that mandates one member must be a physically disabled person with a demonstrated interest in open-government issues. That was written into the law in part because access to meetings for people with disabilities is an ongoing area of concern.

But the supervisors refused to reappoint Bruce Wolfe, a longtime task force member who met that criterion — and who had the respect of independent and progressive leaders all over town. And none of the six people the board did appoint qualify as physically disabled.

So the City Attorney’s Office advised the task force that it would be violating the charter if it met and took any action — and although the chance that the courts would invalidate task force decisions might be slim, the members could face fines. So the panel did the prudent thing and quit meeting.

Now, for all practical purposes, there is no Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, and it will be in legal and political limbo until the supervisors appoint a disabled member.

That follows on the heels of the board refusing — for the first time since the creation of the task force in 1999 — to seat the nominees of the Society of Professional Journalists, New American Media, and the League of Women Voters. Those organizations were given the right to submit names for three seats as a way to ensure that some of the task force members were from outside City Hall and represented media and good-government groups.

So the agency that it supposed to protect the public’s right to access records and meetings has been stacked with City Hall-friendly appointees and now is unable even to hear complaints.

There’s no question that some supervisors are annoyed with the task force, in part because it’s issued some rulings that board members disagreed with. But the task force is supposed to come down on the side of public access whenever possible, and if the agency is doing its job, it’s going to piss off politicians. The response shouldn’t be to seek retribution by denying its ability to function.

The supervisors are demanding that SPJ, NAM and the League submit new lists of nominees, with multiple names, which is unprecedented and difficult: These grassroots groups are supposed to line up a group of volunteers for a difficult, time-consuming, unpaid job — then tell them that all but one of them will be rejected by the supervisors? Who’s going to want to be in that position?

The three organizations should hold their ground, resubmit their nominees and ask the supervisors to follow the City Charter. And the City Attorney’s Office needs to offer some clarity here: Can the supervisors, in a fit of pique, shut down a Charter mandated watchdog agency? Really?