The sunshine posse - Page 2

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

First I wrote a rather chatty letter asking for it, and there was no response. So I wrote a more formal request and also said maybe you ought to make your calendar public. The governor of Florida's done it. It's quite easy to do."

But it wasn't easy for room 200. Lanier filed his original request March 3, 2006. A year later he has not received what he asked for. He's been told by the Mayor's Office of Communications that the calendar can't be released because it tells exactly where Gavin Newsom is supposed to be and who is going to be protecting him. Lanier has urged the office to make the document public at the end of each week, once security concerns have passed. That hasn't happened.

In addition to losing portions of the mayor's calendar during a staff turnover and heavily redacting the few calendar items it has made available, the Mayor's Office has not set or followed a policy regarding public access to this public document. But Lanier's original request has not been dropped. Christian Holmer picked it up.

Holmer is sunshining for sunshine. A manual laborer by day, Holmer's been a longtime resident of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and became volunteer coordinator of the San Francisco Survival Manual, a manifestation of the 40-year-old Haight Asbury Switchboard, once a clearinghouse of services and information for city residents. The modern-day equivalent is part of a public information pilot project approved in 2004 with the support of 10 members of the Board of Supervisors that encourages the sharing of all city documents in an open forum. Holmer makes regular and massive requests for all manner of information from a variety of agencies, urging them to employ the technological ease of e-mail to send him documents as soon they're created by the city — in effect, CCing him on everything.

Holmer says the point is not only to compile a library of city documents but to establish best practices for the agencies that are supposed to provide information when the public requests it. By encouraging this free flow of information that takes, according to him, only a few keystrokes and mere seconds to disseminate electronically, Holmer hopes a culture of openness is being cultivated.

"You push a department to a certain level of compliance, and it raises all the boats," Holmer said.

James Chaffee began seeking public information about the San Francisco Public Library in 1974, long before the Sunshine Ordinance was born. The tall, professorial man has a habit of employing erudite references from literature, philosophy, and film in his regular newsletters decrying the secret actions of the Library Commission. His writings have received attention and acclaim in the national world of library news.

"The original library commissioners would be shocked if they could see the openness that exists now," Chaffee says.

He's pushed for more weekend library hours and successfully brought enough attention to block the public library's plans to purchase costly and suspicious radio-frequency identification tags and grant the task of collecting overdue fees to a debt agency.

Peter Warfield, executive director of the Library Users Association, and Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, picked up the radio-frequency issue and ran with it, making public records requests that might substantiate the library's argument that thousands of dollars in workers' compensation claims for repetitive stress injuries would be remedied by an investment in the expensive new technology.

The library wouldn't turn over any documents, so Tien and Warfield went across the bay to Berkeley, which doesn't have a Sunshine Ordinance (though the city is currently working on one). The Berkeley Public Library gave enough information to fully debunk the claims. Of more than $1 million spent on five years of workers' comp, just 1 percent was for repetitive stress injuries.