How the breakdown in sunshine enforcement leads officials to destroy public documents and defy unwelcome inquiries
Mark Buell, president of the Recreation and Park Commission, also emailed Greg Dalton, Commonwealth Club's COO, from his private email address: "I find the title inflammatory, the participants biased, and the fact that no one from the Rec and Park Department invited hard to understand. As president of the Commission I would like to urge the club to both alter the title of the event to 'issues facing the park' and have the club ask a representative of the department to be on the panel."
Shortly thereafter, Buell was added to the panel and the event was renamed "Golden Gate Park Under Siege?"
Buell says the situation has been blown out of proportion. "I got on the panel because I've been active with the Commonwealth Club for years and all of a sudden I read a very slanted title about something tantamount to the ruination of Golden Gate Park, and a panel of people who are all critics," Buell told us.
Wooding says the panel went smoothly, but he was unsettled by the last minute changes. He asked around for any information about what happened and got the emails through a knowledgeable source close to the RPD.
"[RPD] has pissed off a lot of people because they came in with a hammer when they didn't need a sledge hammer. One of the people they pissed off was really upset and ended up giving me the correspondence," Wooding told us.
As a journalist, Wooding said, "I was thinking, 'this is a great story but wait, I can't use any of this information,' so I thought about how I could get the information legitimately?"
Wooding immediately emailed Olivia Gong, a RPD secretary, making clear that he was requesting the emails in accordance with the Sunshine Ordinance. Gong replied that the department did not have any documents matching the request.
"Imagine how amazed I was when they claimed they didn't exist," Wooding said.
After a second request turned up nothing, Wooding knew they were hiding the emails. He then asked Gong how she had determined the emails did not exist. Gong forwarded emails she had sent to department members who replied they did not have responsive documents.
Wooding then filed a complaint with the task force, which voted unanimously that RPD was in the wrong. Not only did it claim the emails did not exist, but when it became clear that they did, the department said that members deleted the emails because some were sent on private accounts and did not directly pertain to RPD affairs.
"I just delete everything," Buell says. "It's not that I did anything, it's just that I didn't know the rules that you're supposed to keep everything."
Task Force Chair Hope Johnson says she was shocked by this argument. The California Public Records Act, which is more lenient than the Sunshine Ordinance, clearly lists emails as a form of government document that must be handed over on request. The Sunshine Ordinance covers emails as well, and all officials who serve on city boards were required to undergo sunshine training last year, outlining what public documents are and noting that it's illegal under state law to destroy them.
"Just switching over to another email address lends itself to the idea that this is something they knew was underhanded and would not be received positively by the public," Johnson said.
She says this is becoming a problem throughout city government.
"There's not a lot of specificity about keeping emails. They need a retention policy," Johnson says. "Obviously I think that they prefer it to be as vague as possible."
Although the task force found RDP in violation, punishment is up to the Ethics Commission, a separate entity at City Hall.
Enter bureaucratic gloom and doom.