SOC it to 'em - Page 2

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


Craven Green said changing the SOTF's name is a "nonsubstantive" amendment, but that it "makes it sound more permanent."

The key difference between SOTF and SOC is that, under the proposed amendments, SOC could, with a two-thirds vote, appoint outside counsel to enforce serious and willful violations of the ordinance by bringing action against them in civil court. Right now, only the Ethics Commission and District Attorney's Office can enforce SOTF decisions, and neither has been willing to do so.

Retired attorney and sunshine advocate Allen Grossman recently won a $25,000 settlement to cover legal fees in a lawsuit he brought against the Ethics Commission and its executive director John St. Croix to force the city to provide him with previously withheld public records about why Ethics dismissed 14 sunshine cases SOFT had referred to it. The amendment would give SOC that same authority.

"Where we feel there hasn't been sufficient action by the Ethics Commission or sufficient compliance on issues we think are very important for public access, we could instigate outside counsel to prosecute serious and willful violations," Craven-Green said.

The amendments also lay out penalties for officials who willfully flout sunshine laws. Government officers and employees found to have committed official misconduct would be required to personally pay $500 to $5,000, while public agency violations would have that amount taken from their budgets.

SOC would recommend the level of these fines, and any fines that Ethics decided to impose would be placed in SOC's litigation fund. "That should be enough for most departments to comply," Craven-Green said.

Terry Francke, general counsel of Californians Aware, a Sacramento-based center for public forum rights, has been consulting with SOTF on the changes. He says the Achilles' heel of the Sunshine Ordinance, which the board enacted in 1993 and voters amended in 1999 through Proposition G, has been what happens to a department or official who refuses to comply with what SOTF thinks is required.

Under the state's Brown Act open meeting law and the California Public Records Act, correcting the unlawful withholding of public information requires a civil lawsuit. "You go into court, tell them this or that practice violates the Brown Act and ask the court to order a correction," Francke said. "Or you go to court with a request for public records that you believe are being unlawfully withheld."

But now SOTF is folding Francke's recommendations to hire a litigator into the SOC amendment package, along with establishing a $50,000 annual litigation fund. The amendments would require voter approval and the willingness of four members of the Board of Supervisors to place them on the ballot.

Francke acknowledges that this litigation fund could sound odd, "but it's a kick start that's needed" to encourage compliance. "It's not so much a net outflow of funds as a kind of transfer of funds from the operating fund of a particular agency that violated law to the litigation fund of the SO commission."

Francke says Grossman's lawsuit is a good example of a successful effort to take the city to court. "But the difference, under the proposed amendments, is that $25,000 payment would go into SOC's litigation fund," Francke said. "If the lawsuit by Mr. Grossman had been filed by SOC with its enforcement attorney, that would not have meant a net loss by the city, it would mean a net gain to the commission's litigation fund."

The problem now, Francke observes, is that Ethics dismisses most complaints on the grounds that it was not official misconduct or willful failure because employees or officials were acting on City Attorney's Office advice.