Former Mayor Willie Brown was infamous for keeping the workings of San Francisco government secret. Now his successor, Mayor Ed Lee, has codified government secrecy into written policy.
A Bay Guardian review of Lee's newest public records retention schedule found the mayor granted himself the ability to destroy public records with broad power: deleting emails deemed "routine," drafts of legislation, and records of telephone calls to the office of the mayor.
The policy should have anyone interested in government transparency up in arms. It potentially flouts the California Public Records Act, as well as the city's Sunshine Ordinance, state and local laws granting citizens and journalists alike the legal right to keep tabs on what goes on under the hood of the political machine.
Emails, which Lee's policy says the Mayor's Office can destroy, are a particularly powerful tool for keeping government in check.
"Sources can be less than reliable, but an email speaks for itself," said James Wheaton, senior counsel for the First Amendment Project, a group that defends the public's right to government information. "Emails are a unique window into the way an institution functions. We call these things 'paper trails.'"
But the paper trail used to track the mayor is kept in the shadows by his new policy, the most recent crack to appear in an eroding wall of public trust in open government.
LET THE SUNSHINE IN
Reporters and engaged citizens depend on access to public records to do the everyday dirty work of keeping an eye on government.
In 2010, reporters from the Los Angeles Times investigated the town of Bell's corrupt network of city officials (including the mayor and police chief), who swindled money from city coffers. Public record requests of their emails revealed brazen exchanges: "I am looking forward to seeing you and taking all of Bell's money?!"
Closer to home, public records allowed a Sacramento Bee investigative reporter to uncover perilous corrosion in the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge, leading to a public outcry over a threat to public safety.
The Guardian, long critical of mayoral backdoor deals, often requests emails from government agencies to track people in power. "Behind the Tweets [3/11]," relied on emails obtained from the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development to chronicle how Twitter wrangled local lawmakers into weakening the benefits it had to supply the city in exchange for its much-contested tax breaks.
A recent Guardian investigation led us to the mayor's newly minted policy. When Guardian Editor in Chief Steven T. Jones requested email correspondence from the Mayor's Office, we were told the emails may have been deleted, leading us to ask a reasonable question.
"What the hell?!"
VANISHING PAPER TRAIL
On April 22, the Guardian made a Sunshine Ordinance request to the Mayor's Office for communications involving Tenderloin power broker Randy Shaw and the Tenderloin Museum project that he and Lee launched at a press conference the previous day.