Spin vs. substance - Page 2

Sunshine complaints and sparse official calendars belie Mayor Newsom's claims of transparency

"For the Mayor's Office, it was an ongoing tale of crashed hard drives, changing office personnel, lost documents, overt/covert confusion, and best intentions."

Nearly three years later, the scrutinizing crew remains frustrated with the results, saying the Mayor's Office has only come forth with a watered-down schedule, called the Prop. G calendar ("scrubbed" and "virtually useless," in Holmer's opinion), rather than the more descriptive document known as the working calendar. Many days, Newsom's Prop. G calendar is blank, and seldom is there more than a few hours worth of activities, each one usually described in just a few words.

The Prop. G calendar seeks to comply with the minimum standards for calendars set forth in the city's 1999 sunshine law: "The mayor ... shall keep or cause to be kept a daily calendar wherein is recorded the time and place of each meeting or event attended by that official.... For meetings not otherwise publicly recorded, the calendar shall include a general statement of issues discussed."

The working calendar is a confidential document, the Mayor's Office held in a letter responding to the Sunshine Posse's complaint that the mayor was withholding public information. "The Mayor's Office prepares a working calendar that is extremely detailed and accounts for his time from departure from home until his return in the evening," the letter states. "The working calendar contains not only the mayor's meeting schedule, but also confidential information such as the officers assigned to protect him, security contact numbers, the mayor's private schedule, details of his travel [etc.]. As with past administrations, the mayor's staff keeps the working calendar and its contents confidential.... The computer system automatically deletes the working calendar after five days."

Despite this defense, the task force determined that the working calendar is in fact a public document that should be provided to the citizens. Doug Comstock was task force chair when the issue was heard. "We made it very clear that they have to turn over those documents," he says. "If there's a document that's being created using public monies and public funds, that is a more specific calendar, that's the document that needs to be provided." Comstock also noted that it is possible for the Mayor's Office to redact sensitive information that could pose a security risk. Nonetheless, he says, three years have passed and "the real calendar remains hidden from view."

When asked about the complaints regarding the calendar, Ballard responded, "Their criticism is baseless. We exceed far [sic] the requirements of the Sunshine Ordinance with the level of disclosure that we provide."

Erica Craven, an attorney who sits on the task force, believes there's room for improvement on the mayor's practices regarding sunshine. "My instinct is that there are a lot of people who work in the Mayor's Office who are committed to open government," she says. "But there are some troubling things we've seen as well, such as complaints where the Mayor's Office hasn't sent a representative to respond to allegations. I would like to see a little bit more commitment and leadership on open government from the Mayor's Office — I think it would set a good tone in City Hall."

In recent weeks, interest in the mayor's schedule has intensified once again in light of the city's financial predicament.