How the breakdown in sunshine enforcement leads officials to destroy public documents and defy unwelcome inquiries
The San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance, although it sounds bright and cheery, remains shrouded in a cloud of inaction. Meant to increase transparency in city government, it hasn't emerged from the bureaucratic fog since its establishment in 1994. Cases wait years to be heard and even blatant violations go unpunished, due to infighting and power disputes between the commissions that are supposed to enforce government compliance.
The Sunshine Ordinance outlines citizen's rights to request document and information. Citizens can take their complaints about request denials to the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, an 11-member committee appointed by the Board of Supervisors to ensure government compliance. If the task force decides a violation has occurred the case is handed over to the Ethics Commission, a five-member appointed board that will supposedly enforce the rulings with fines or ordering documents to be made public.
George Wooding, reporter for the Westside Observer and president of the West of Twin Peaks Central Council, is the complainant in one of the task force's most recent cases. This spring Wooding requested emails from the Recreation and Park Department multiple times but was told the documents did not exist. What RPD didn't know was that Wooding had the emails all along.
The task force unanimously found RPD guilty of withholding emails. This is the third major sunshine violation by RPD in three years. Even more surprising, not one RPD employee has been fined, suspended, or faced any kind of punishment or corrective action.
The episode is a case study in the total eclipse of sunshine enforcement in the city, and how one embattled department — the RPD, which has come under heavy scrutiny for efforts to monetize park resources (see "Parks Inc.", July 12) — used that dysfunction to stifle dissent.
George Wooding v. RPD began when Wooding was asked to be a panelist at a Commonwealth Club event on May 11. The event, titled "Golden Gate Park Under Siege," was to be a discussion about possible development projects in the park. Other panelists were representatives of environmental and anti-development groups who claimed they were not given time to voice their concerns in Board of Supervisors meetings, and wanted a forum to do so.
Wooding says that the Commonwealth Club was bombarded with phone calls and emails weeks before the discussion.
"They were saying our panel was one-sided, which is really unusual, and the Commonwealth Club told us they were getting a lot of heat for such a little panel discussion," Wooding said. "It was not going to be a big deal, in all honesty."
The emails that Wooding had and the department denied include correspondence from Sarah Ballard, RPD's director of policy and public affairs, to Kerry Curtis, co-chair of the Commonwealth Club Environment & Natural Resources Forum, indicating she had phoned the club as well and asked that the discussion be canceled due to its "deeply biased panel that has no interest in discussing facts."
There are also emails between Susan Hirsch, director of the City Fields Foundation, a private group that has been installing artificial turf in public parks, from her business email address to the panel moderator Jim Chappell's private email, urging him to reconsider the event.
"You and I discussed this project years ago; the private sector is contributing far more than $20 million to provide safe, accessibly, and yes, environmentally sound fields for kids all across San Francisco to use. We have a unique private/public partnership with Rec and Park; it's too bad the focus is on something negative, rather than the positive impact," Hirsch wrote.