Information, please - Page 2

The Bay Area leads the revolution in information sharing. So why is it still so hard to get basic public records in San Francisco?

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IMAGE VIA CREATIVE COMMONS

Unfortunately, public-records requests tend to be ignored all too often in San Francisco, spurring complaints that then seem to hit dead ends. Meanwhile, the government agency tasked with holding officials accountable under the Sunshine Ordinance and promoting ethical conduct in government apparently hasn't embraced this newfound enthusiasm for transparency.

NO RECORDING DEVICE

At a recent "interested persons" meeting hosted by the San Francisco Ethics Commission to talk about possible regulatory reform, Friends of Ethics (FoE), a group that's pushing for tougher rules, questioned why the city watchdog agency wasn't bothering to record the proceedings. "If we don't have a recording, and we don't have minutes, and we don't have a back-and-forth, how do we make decisions?" FoE member Eileen Hansen, herself a former Ethics commissioner, wanted to know.

Asked directly whether the agency would record the meetings, Ethics Commission Deputy Director Mabel Ng responded, "A lot of it depends on what our resources are. I don't even know that we have a tape recorder."

So: The city has $40,000 a year to spend on software that can plot graffiti on customized maps, but can't find $100 or so for a recording device for its open-government agency? It's little wonder that the Civil Grand Jury in 2011 referred to the Ethics Commission as "The Sleeping Watchdog."

That report found the commission had dismissed nearly every case forwarded to it by the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, which is tasked with investigating complaints filed under the city's open-records law. Between 2004 and 2010, for example, the sunshine panel sent 18 cases to Ethics — each one an example of a violation of the open-government laws so flagrant that the task force considered it official misconduct. Ethics dismissed all 18 of those cases. "Because of the Ethics Commission's lack of enforcement, no city employee has been disciplined for failing to adhere to the Sunshine Ordinance," the report found.

An analysis performed by the Board of Supervisors Budget & Legislative Analyst, meanwhile, discovered that 76 percent of ethics investigations in San Francisco die off with a "case dismissed."

And in some cases, the Ethics Commission hasn't adopted basic technology like Excel spreadsheets. For example, a San Francisco campaign finance law prohibits high-paid city contractors from making campaign contributions to elected officials who approve their contracts. It was enacted to eliminate quid pro quo dealings and prevent corruption — but it's next to impossible for elected officials to figure out if they're in compliance, since the filings aren't submitted electronically.

"By maintaining the paper format, Ethics makes it more difficult to utilize the data in the forms," former Ethics Commission staffer and FoE advocate Oliver Luby pointed out at the meeting.

Luby also pointed out that non-candidate campaigns, such as those promoting ballot measures, can conceal their donors by reporting campaign debt before receiving the funds to pay it off, making it impossible to track who's plunking down. This "dark money" loophole can thwart transparency, but the commission "has never proposed any solutions for this problem," according to Luby.

STRIVING FOR SUNSHINE

Even when citizens and journalists successfully wend their way through the public-records request process, it can be cumbersome. Sometimes, it's only after years of court battles that records are finally shaken loose, and newsrooms with deeply slashed budgets are increasingly hesitant to engage in the time-consuming request process. That's why Michael Morisy, a veteran journalist, started Muck Rock to facilitate the process of submitting public-records requests.

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