How the breakdown in sunshine enforcement leads officials to destroy public documents and defy unwelcome inquiries
Since 1993 the task force has given the Ethics Commission 19 sunshine violation cases. Only one has even been heard. The other 18 were dismissed or are still "pending investigation." Government officials are therefore under no serious threat if they disobey the law.
Richard Knee, former chair of the task force, says there is obvious animosity between the task force and commission staff. Rather than enforcing punishment, the Ethic Commission staff claim that cases can be dismissed on the grounds of insufficient evidence, or require additional investigation, which stalls the process indefinitely.
"I don't think there's any confusion, I think it's merely resistance," Knee said. "We are not asking the Ethics Commission to re-adjudicate something we have already adjudicated. When we refer a matter to the Ethics Commission we are asking them to tack some kind of enforcement action on a violation we have already found exists."
In the one case Ethics did hear, it turned the punishment decision over to the mayor as the "appointing officer," who did nothing. It has, therefore, never enforced a penalty on any government official that the task force found guilty.
A report released in August by the Civil Grand Jury, entitled "San Francisco's Ethics Commission: The Sleeping Watchdog," criticizes the body's record of inaction on both sunshine and campaign finance complaints.
"Because of the Ethics Commission's lack of enforcement, no city employee has been disciplined for failing to adhere to the Sunshine Ordinance. The Commission has allowed some city officials to ignore the rulings of the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force," the report says.
Johnson says that since the report came out, her correspondence with the Ethics Commission has shifted slightly.
"They used to send us letters back saying they dismissed it, but recently we've sent over two cases and they agreed that there had been a violation," Johnson said. "But they said they wouldn't be able to do enforcements of any kind."
She says that the Sunshine Ordinance won't be taken seriously until the very people it is meant to monitor begin to enforce its stipulations.
"It's difficult with the Ethics Commission because they keep all of their investigations secret," Johnson says. "There is no external oversight, it is all the politicians, all of the people who appointed them, they are the only people who monitor what they're doing."
In response to the report, Johnson hopes the Ethics Commission will be urged to actually hear sunshine cases, and Wooding's could be one of the first.
"The George Wooding case is a good example of how the Sunshine Ordinance can reveal oppression of a group of people who wanted to come together and have a constructive analysis," Johnson said. "That should be something that's allowed, and here's the very entity that they want to have an analysis and discussion about shutting them down. And here are some documents that prove it."
Wooding's case will be heard once more by the task force on Sept. 27. It will almost certainly be sent to the Ethics Commission, but Wooding may be waiting awhile for any resolution.
"It's probably going to take forever," Wooding says. "Either I'll just end up being another file in a cabinet somewhere, or this may even become an example, if it moves through, of how things should be done. There might be a lot more life in this than anyone ever imagined."
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