The sunshine posse - Page 3

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

The Chaffee-Warfield-Tien efforts halted a nationwide move toward employing this potentially privacy-invading technology.

Then there's Kimo Crossman.

Crossman is regularly criticized for his public records requests, which some city agencies feel are voluminous and burdensome. "I've had to stop the office a couple times. There are 300 people in this office," said Matt Dorsey, spokesperson for the City Attorney's Office, which receives almost daily requests or reminders of requests from Crossman, the length and breadth of which bring some city departments to their knees.

Technology is Crossman's interest, and he made his first public records request of the Department of Telecommunications and Information Services in September 2005, for contracts and related documents between the city and Google-EarthLink.

"As an interested citizen, I wanted to participate in the wi-fi initiative," Crossman told us. He received his request — with 90 percent of the information redacted. The DTIS claimed attorney-client privilege and the need to protect proprietary information to keep Crossman from seeing more than a fraction of the data.

Even though a specific section in the Sunshine Ordinance allows for the release of a contract when there are not multiple bidders and today the deal is strictly between the city and Google-EarthLink, the DTIS still refuses to hand over the documents Crossman wants. DTIS spokesperson Ron Vinson continues to cite the advice of the City Attorney's Office.

The city attorney's relationship with sunshine is a problem, according to Allen Grossman, a retired business lawyer. Grossman's requests for information have transcended their original intent — some Department of Public Works permits for tree removal near his home on Lake Street. They have become an inquiry into why so many departments regularly employ the City Attorney's Office to represent them when it's a direct violation of section 67.21(i) of the Sunshine Ordinance. That section states the city attorney "shall not act as legal counsel for any city employee or any person having custody of any public record for purposes of denying access to the public." The public lawyers are permitted only to write legal opinions regarding the withholding of information, which must be made public.

"The whole purpose of that section was to level the playing field and get the lawyers out of it," said Grossman, who says the office ghostwrites letters denying access, putting citizens who may not have legal counsel to advise them at an unfair advantage. It's not in keeping with the spirit of the law.

Dorsey defends City Attorney Dennis Herrera, pointing out that deputy city attorneys no longer represent departments at the task force when there's a complaint. They're still writing those letters, though.

"When we give advice on sunshine, it's a matter of public record. We will prepare a written cover-your-ass statement," Dorsey said. "To some we would appear as the bad guy, but I yield to no one on our commitment on sunshine in this city."

Bruce Wolfe, a task force member who's seen scores of departments employ the ghostwriting tactic, said, "There is one area that concerns me greatly — the use of attorney shield. The question is what is the city attorney's role? The advice is important because that's something every other department can use, but it shouldn't just be some way to squiggle out of providing records."

Dorsey related a recent case in which KGO wanted access to Muni documents that identified the names of operators. "We provided the documents, but we redacted the names. If we lose to KGO in front of the task force, we have to turn over docs. If we lose to a court that finds we violated privacy, we're on the hook for potential substantive damages. These results can get very expensive for taxpayers.