The sunshine posse

The FOI Issue: New sunshine warriors are changing the way City Hall does business

On Saturday mornings, with roughshod regularity, a handful of San Franciscans gather at the Sacred Grounds Cafe on Hayes Street to swap strategies and catch up on their political triumphs and setbacks. They don't look like a powerful bunch, and they aren't household names, but they're changing the way the city handles public records, meetings, and information.

All of these folks started with one simple request for what ought to have been public information. All of them ran into a stone wall. They eventually found one another at hearings in front of the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, where they took their cases and debated the minutiae of the law that grants them access to what they're looking for.

For Wayne Lanier, it started with a $600 tax for neighborhood beautification. James Chaffee and Peter Warfield were seeking reform at the San Francisco Public Library. Kimo Crossman wanted more transparency in the city's wi-fi deal with Google-EarthLink. Michael Petrelis was trying to find a keyhole into local nonprofit AIDS agencies. Allen Grossman thought the city's attorneys should shelve their redactive black ink. And Christian Holmer — he just considers sunshine a part of his job.

They've been working together loosely during the past year or so — and in most cases, they've won. Their ongoing battles also show how the city's laws and practices badly need reform.

Collectively, the sunshine crew considers the issue of metadata its biggest victory of the year (see "The Devil in the Metadata," 11/15/06), because it forced city officials to abandon their fear of the unseen electronic data that is generated whenever they hit send or open a new word-processing document.

Paul Zarefsky, a deputy city attorney with the City Attorney's Office, argued that electronic documents could be rife with redactable goods and hackers could use this data to crack into the city's server. According to him, this was ample reason to only release public information as a paper document or a PDF. The sunshine activists said this was an environmental waste and a very un–user friendly format in this age of electronic searches. The task force and Rules Committee of the Board of Supervisors agreed, found the city attorney's arguments specious, and demanded agencies follow the letter of the law and release documents in an electronic format.

Some departments still aren't doing that, which is a problem these citizens have discovered: the Sunshine Ordinance, though very good, could be much better and is overripe for reform.

The ordinance, adopted by voters in 1993, grants San Franciscans far more traction and power than the federal and state open-records laws by setting deadlines and offering the forum of the task force for addressing complaints when documents are not forthcoming.

When a citizen makes a request for a public document, it's often because somebody sees something from the kitchen window while washing dishes and says, "Huh, I wonder what's going on."

For Wayne Lanier, that moment came when he received a bill from the city for $600 after he improved the sidewalk and installed some planters in front of his house on Fell Street. Lanier had gone through the proper planning and permit process and was confident everything he'd done was within the law. So why was he being fined?

With a little research, Lanier discovered that an ordinance, recently passed by the supervisors at the urging of the mayor, inadvertently took into account sidewalk fixtures such as planters when taxing property owners and merchants for putting up signs and cluttering rights-of-way. Lanier began to research how the law came to pass.

"I was told there were various meetings with the mayor," Lanier said. "I didn't know when they were. So I started using the Sunshine Ordinance as a means to getting the mayor's calendar.