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Sunshine panel exonerates Elections Commission

By Rachel Brahinsky

In a vote that could help rebuild credibility for the newly formed Elections Commission, the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force voted at a March 26 hearing to overturn charges that commissioners violated open-government rules.

The task force vote ended a three-month dispute over whether the commission – which was created by a 2001 ballot measure aimed at cleaning up the city's elections – violated open-government laws when it held its first organizational meeting in January.

The hearing focused on what happened at the January meeting, before the commissioners were officially sworn in. Attendees claim the gathering was only a "meet and greet" session held to set the agenda for their first official meeting. They say they didn't discuss the agenda items – they simply each offered suggestions – because they were advised that would have been illegal.

But the complainants charged that the discussion strayed further. "This agenda is peppered with things that required a lot of thought and discussion," said Shelley Bradford-Bell, a member of the San Francisco Commission on the Environment and one of the complainants.

Deputy city attorney Julie Moll testified she had advised commissioners it might look bad to meet secretly but it was not illegal. That's because they had not been sworn in, so their appointments weren't active. "Technically the law didn't apply," she said. "I told them it wasn't a good idea [because of appearances], but that it was still possible to meet – if they talked only about themselves and set times for their meetings. I said they could contribute agenda items but couldn't discuss them. My understanding is that's what happened."

By a 6-2 vote, a majority of the task force said there was no evidence the meeting strayed out of bounds. Members Joshua Koltun, Bay Guardian editor and publisher Bruce B. Brugmann, Marie Harrison, Heather Stearner, Ted Kowalczuk, and Daniel Guillory voted yes; Paul Hogan and Marjorie Ann Williams voted no. Vince Courtney was absent. Task force chair Hilda Bernstein recused herself because she had previously expressed a position on the complaint.

A second complaint – charging that three commissioners met illegally on another occasion to review job applications – was unanimously rejected by the task force because of a lack of evidence.

The complaint brought to light a conflict between the commission and San Francisco Department of Elections director Tammy Haygood. Haygood has been criticized ever since last fall's election debacle in which ballot-box tops were found floating in the San Francisco Bay. When the commission was formed in January, it was expected to seek Haygood's ouster. So it's not too surprising that Haygood's supporters have tried to use San Francisco's sunshine rules to thwart the anticipated moves against her.

Commissioner Richard Shadoian testified that behind the allegations is a campaign to disable and discredit the new commission. Since January, he said, Haygood has stonewalled his and other commissioners' attempts to get started. He said that staff members assigned to help the commission also stalled the process.

Later in an interview Shadoian added that Haygood has withheld basic information, including budgets, and that she tried to delay the group's first meeting. "My feeling is that a lot of information has been withheld from us," he said. "We look like we don't know what we're doing because we don't have the information."

Haygood denied each one of Shadoian's statements, noting that when she assigned staffers to help the commission, the commissioners rejected the help, saying they wanted to remain independent of the department. "We did not want to interfere with their independence," Haygood said. She added she has not withheld any information from the commissioners and that any delay was because staffers were busy with the March election: "They have to understand we were in the middle of running a complex and busy election.... We moved as fast as we were able."

The sunshine task force meets April 23, 4 p.m., City Hall, Room 408, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, S.F. (415) 554-7724. The Elections Commission meets Wed/3, 7 p.m., Room 400, City Hall. (415) 554-4375. E-mail Rachel Brahinsky at rachel@sfbg.com.