SOC it to 'em

FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ISSUE: Will the city's Sunshine Ordinance finally get some much-needed teeth?


On the same evening the Police Commission shot down Chief George Gascón's plan to arm his officers with Tasers, a Sunshine Ordinance Task Force (SOTF) committee reviewed a proposal to give itself a set of enforcement tools that, if approved, could help nail governmental agencies and officials that violate public information laws.

These proposals include the right to appoint outside counsel to enforce serious, willful violations of the voter-approved Sunshine Ordinance against respondents who fail to comply with SOTF orders, thereby allowing enforcement actions to be brought in civil court.

Despite the potential significance of these amendments to the cause of open government and the history of SOTF findings being blatantly ignored by Mayor Gavin Newsom and other officials who have refused to release public documents, only a small posse of regular sunshine advocates attended the March 4 meeting of SOTF's Compliance and Amendments Committee.

This lack of public interest underscores how the inability to enforce its findings has undercut its power, and why its members believe the legal equivalent of a stun gun is needed if people are going to start taking the work of this Board of Supervisors appointed body seriously.

Erica Craven-Green, an attorney who has served on SOTF for six years, has seen a number of departments not take the body's proceedings seriously.

"There are very few penalties for individuals and departments that choose not to comply with the ordinance," Craven-Green observed. "We've had numerous instances where representatives from city departments and the offices of elected officials failed to show up at our hearings and explain how they did or did not comply with the ordinance."

Angela Chan, staff attorney of the Asian Law Caucus, filed a complaint with SOTF in October 2009 after the Mayor's Office refused to explain why it gave a confidential City Attorney's Office memo about sanctuary city reforms to the San Francisco Chronicle but not her organization for two full weeks, despite her requests.

At a December 2009 SOTF hearing, Brian Purchia of the Mayor's Office of Communications handed SOTF a note that read, "I had to leave to respond to the press," shortly before Chan's complaint was heard. As a result, the task force decided to continue the matter to January so someone from the Mayor's Office could attend. Yet despite repeated requests, no mayoral representatives attended that or subsequent SOTF's meetings about Chan's complaint.

"It is deeply disappointing that the Mayor's Office has not shown any respect for the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, which works hard to try to improve government transparency and accountability for the residents of San Francisco," Chan told the Guardian. "The mayor appears to be acting like a monarch rather than a democratically-elected official who is accountable and responsive to the people. Reform is needed to ensure all city officials comply with our Sunshine Ordinance and heed [SOTF's] orders."

And it's not just members of the public who feel their time is being wasted. "I think it is very frustrating and, quite frankly, a waste, not only of the task force's [time], but of city resources as well, to have a hearing on a matter that the city decides not to reply to and/or show up for," said Craven-Green, who steps down from SOTF later this year.

SOTF is seeking to address this sense of powerlessness by renaming SOTF the Sunshine Ordinance Commission (SOC), giving it the ability to hire an attorney and propose fines, and requiring that departments post notices of sunshine violations on their Web sites. The amendments also expand the list of public officials required to keep working calendars and clarify access requirements for electronic records and systems.