Spin vs. substance

Sunshine complaints and sparse official calendars belie Mayor Newsom's claims of transparency
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rebeccab@sfbg.com

Hollywood paparazzi crews are beginning to follow high-profile politicians, such as Mayor Gavin Newsom, the same way they track the likes of Britney Spears, the San Francisco Chronicle reported recently. And when a celebrity gossip photographer surreptitiously aims the lens at a political leader, the picture that emerges isn't always flattering.

Likewise, the documents that can be extracted through public records laws — including the federal Freedom of Information Act, California Public Records Act, and San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance — don't always paint political figures in the most favorable light.

Both end products leave the same impression of a glimpse behind the curtain — consumers feel they're privy to the raw, unpackaged truth. But while photos may show politicians looking silly or meeting with controversial power brokers, documents show how the people's business is being conducted. So the willingness of officials to promptly comply with requests for documents and information says a great deal about whether their public statements match their private deeds.

Nathan Ballard, Newsom's press secretary, characterizes (through e-mail, the medium through which he insists on dealing with the Guardian) the mayor's commitment to open government as being "as strong or stronger than any public official in this country."

But to hear some proponents of open government tell it — and in our experience here at the Guardian — the Newsom administration keeps much of the mayor's business under wraps, leaving many info-seekers in the dark or reliant on Ballard's spin. Responses to requests for public records tend to be delayed and incomplete, and queries directed to the mayor's office of communications are often returned with terse, one-line e-mails that obscure more than illuminate.

Rick Knee, a longtime member of the city's Sunshine Ordinance Task Force — the city body charged with upholding the open-government rule — says Newsom has been in violation of the Sunshine Ordinance on several occasions. "Mayor Newsom's actual practices regarding Sunshine have been, shall we say, less than what one would desire of him," Knee says. Despite those violations, he adds, the mayor "continues to refuse to provide what remedies the task force calls for on his part."

Under Proposition 59, a state constitutional amendment that won overwhelming voter approval in 2004, the records kept by public officials are considered to be "the people's business." In practice, however, it doesn't always pan out that way.

For example, a group of citizens informally known as the Sunshine Posse who have made it a personal quest to improve government transparency by peppering city departments with Sunshine requests, have sounded alarm bells over the mayor's refusal to release a more detailed daily calendar. One Sunshine Posse member began seeking more fleshed-out mayoral itineraries back in 2006, according to group member Christian Holmer, to gain an understanding of whom the mayor had met with and what had been discussed.

But he quickly ran into a slew of difficulties. "The Mayor's Office ignored our simple request for 255 days," Holmer told the Guardian. "We sent weekly reminders to most of his staff and key members of the city attorney's executive and government teams for months and months." After bringing the matter to the attention of the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, Holmer says, a new set of problems cropped up.