Spin vs. substance - Page 3

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

In the face of a looming budget deficit of unprecedented size and with the economy in shambles and jobs at stake, journalists and affected citizens are seeking details about how the conundrum is being dealt with inside City Hall.

Last month, the Guardian filed a request under the Sunshine Ordinance for details on the mayor's meetings about the budget, asking for "a list of all the labor and business leaders and supervisors that he's met with about the budget, the dates of those meetings and how long they lasted, all documents associated with those meetings (including any agendas, communications to set up those meetings and follow-up communications after the meetings), and summaries of what was discussed at those meetings, including any outcomes or agreements."

Under the Sunshine Ordinance, such "immediate disclosure" requests are supposed be honored in two days' time, but it took five days and a Guardian reminder for the Mayor's Office to respond via e-mail, saying: "As you know, the Sunshine Ordinance does not require us to create documents. If you can point to a specific document that you're seeking, I'd be happy to try and locate it for you."

Three days later, the Mayor's Office forwarded the Prop. G calendar, which revealed that the mayor booked 7.5 hours of meetings about the budget crisis over the course of 17 days, none with labor representatives (whom Ballard said Newsom had met with). It included one-line entries disclosing whom he met with and when, but no information concerning the substance of the discussion. When the Guardian pressed for more information, the Mayor's Office said there were no other documents associated with those meetings or any other information they were willing to provide.

Similarly, just last week, the Guardian tried to find out what the Mayor's Office was doing about reports that Caltrain and the California High-Speed Rail Authority were balking at using the Transbay Terminal, citing technical concerns. On March 6, we asked who was working on the issue, what communications there had been with these agencies, and other basic information.

Ballard would say only that "The mayor is fully engaged in finding a comprehensive regional solution that ensures that high speed rail will come to the Transbay Terminal," and denied further requests for more substantive information.

Ballard acknowledges that the Mayor's Office has "occasionally" been found to be in violation of the city's Sunshine Ordinance. However, he noted, "I can't remember a time when the Ethics Commission did not overturn a task force decision against our office. In other words, most if not all task force decisions against us have, upon review, been found to be without merit."

Actually, the chronically under-funded Ethics Commission isn't charged with judging whether SOTF findings have merit. The SOTF is the arbiter of whether the Sunshine Ordinance was violated, but it has no enforcement authority and therefore must rely on Ethics to pursue violations — if it has the will and resources to do so.

This touches on a trend that Knee says is a fundamental challenge to upholding the Sunshine Ordinance. "If the [task force] finds that there has been a willful violation ... we can refer our findings to any or all of four entities: Ethics, the Board of Supervisors, the District Attorney, and the California Attorney General," Knee explains. "At one time or another we have made referrals to any or all of those organizations. And every single time, those entities have thrown out our findings. Not one complaint we have submitted has been upheld."

To remedy this, he says, a package of proposed reforms is in the works. "We want to give the task force some teeth," he says. "We want enforcement power of our own."

Steven T. Jones contributed to this report.