Document battle frustrates the mayor's flacks and galvanizes a new breed of activist
The Mayor's Office of Communications has for months been fighting with Sup. Chris Daly and several unrelated activists over the release of public documents. By denying and ignoring Sunshine Ordinance requests — including some by the Guardian — the office has garnered a reputation for secrecy that has transformed a disparate group of activists into a united force pushing the boundaries of the city's landmark open government law.
The Sunshine Ordinance Task Force (SOTF) on July 25 found the MOC in violation of the Sunshine Ordinance on two counts, but the mayor's spokespeople defied its decision and refused to release seven pages of MOC e-mails that Daly requested. Jennifer Petrucione, who spoke for the mayor at the meeting and left before a final decision had been reached on one of the violations, told the Guardian, "I was contemptuous of the process."
Her view and that of mayoral press secretary Peter Ragone, as they explained to the Guardian, is that the voluminous nature of some requests and the political motivations of document requesters like Daly violate the spirit of the Sunshine Ordinance, which voters passed in 1993 to encourage public access to how decisions are made in city hall. Instead of disclosing documents, the MOC has found loopholes in the broadly written law permitting them to hide information.
"We have the right to withhold certain documents if they are recommendations," Petrucione told us July 28, even though the task force generally supports disclosure of such documents. In another case of ignoring a request, she chalked it up to an accident: "That was not us trying to avoid Sunshine, it was us doing it too quickly and overlooking things."
While both Ragone and Petrucione insisted it's their policy to release everything they can, even if it's logistically difficult given the volume of requests they receive, they're still having a hard time producing documents in a timely fashion. So some activists have reacted to early inaction with ever more voluminous and complicated requests.
The day after we discussed the MOC Sunshine Ordinance policies with Petrucione and Ragone, Mayor Gavin Newsom appeared at a town hall meeting in the Richmond, where we asked him about the dispute with Daly's office. "I haven't been privy to the details," he told us. "I would like to see us readily provide whatever information is being requested. I said, 'Peter, just send all the information, even in the spirit of the ordinance. We have nothing to hide.'”
Two days later, Petrucione called the Guardian to say the mayor had ordered her office to release the disputed documents after all. She told us, "You guys want to make an issue of it, so we decided to just put them out there."
The disputed e-mails requested by Sup. Daly involve Ragone's purchase last year of a tenancy in common (TIC) from which two disabled residents had been evicted by a landlord evoking the Ellis Act, as first reported by the blog
Daly was curious if there might be any connection between Ragone's new digs and Newsom's vetoes of proposals that would have protected tenants from those kinds of evictions. Daly's office filed an immediate disclosure request for any documents regarding evictions or condominium conversions.
After the MOC initially responded that they didn't have any such documents, which Daly’s office didn't believe, the issue dragged out over four months in front of the SOTF, with the MOC eventually turning over about 25 relevant documents but withholding seven e-mails, with Petrucione citing Section 67.24 of the Sunshine Ordinance: "Only the recommendation of the author may, in such circumstances, be withheld as exempt."
Daly appeared at the meeting to speak on his own behalf. "I'm not attempting to have a gotcha on the Mayor's Office.