February 5, 2003

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Tough cell
Supes found guilty of violating Sunshine Ordinance

By Shadi Rahimi

The Sunshine Ordinance Task Force found the San Francisco Board of Supervisors guilty of violating the city's open-government law for refusing to release copies of unredacted telephone bills.

At a Jan. 28 hearing, the task force voted 6-4 in favor of a former San Francisco Examiner reporter who charged that the supervisors refused to disclose unedited copies of all city-issued landline and cellular phone bills from January 2001 to June 2002.

Reporter Michael Stoll first filed a complaint against the supervisors Sept. 12 after clerk Gloria Young denied his request. Young had stated in a June 21 letter that in order to protect the privacy of citizens who contacted supervisors, her office would provide Stoll copies of bills with the date, time, length, location, and cost of each outgoing call, but without the telephone number.

Stoll argued in a letter addressed to the task force that because the identities of callers are already recorded in city memos that are subject to public disclosure, "disclosing [telephone numbers] is no way tantamount to 'forcing identification to appear on handbills,' as the denial letter claims."

The reporter said at the hearing that he was forced to withdraw his complaint Oct. 7 "under great protestation" because of pressure from Examiner management. His complaint was filed during a heated campaign the Examiner was conducting for the November 2002 elections to retain its lucrative contract to print the city's legal notices. He said several managers told him his complaint was "too politically sensitive." Stoll, who is now a freelance reporter for other publications, including the Bay Guardian, renewed his complaint Dec. 17.

Stoll told the task force that unredacted copies of the supervisors' telephone bills are a matter of public record and an important tool for investigative reporting. "I'm not interested in who is calling the government," he said. "I am interested in who the government is contacting."

Deputy city attorney Dorji Roberts told the task force that the supervisors want to protect the identities of whistle-blowers and other citizens who wish to remain anonymous. "We don't think it's worth knowingly violating other people's constitutional rights and, in fact, causing a chilling effect on people's desires to contact supervisors," he said. But Stoll maintained the concern was unfounded because there were many cases in the past in which the supervisors had provided unexpurgated telephone bills to reporters and citizens.

Task force chair Joshua Koltun said the contention made by the deputy city attorney was that all information is private until proved otherwise. "It's not necessarily the case that everyone who wants documents to be private has the right to dictate that," he said.

Attorney Thomas Burke, legal advisor to the California First Amendment Coalition and one of the authors of 1999's Proposition G (which revised the 1993 Sunshine Ordinance), told the task force during public comment that declarations submitted by supervisors' aides about why they did not want to disclose the telephone numbers were "very, very carefully worded."

"There is something going on here," Burke said, reminding the task force that abuses revealed in other cities and states by such documents ranged from excessive calls to supervisors holding meetings over cell phones before taking votes.

CFAC general counsel Terry Francke, who wrote the original 1993 law, submitted two letters to the task force in support of Stoll's complaint. He said in a phone interview that the task force's ruling was a "policy victory" and that if it forces a disclosure of at least some of the records, "it will be the first time that the task force has effectively compelled the board to release county documents."

As of press time, Young told us she had not spoken to Roberts but planned to do so later this week.

The next regular meeting of the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force takes place Feb. 25, 4 p.m., City Hall, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, Room 408, S.F. To report abuses of the Sunshine Ordinance, contact task force administrator Donna Hall at (415) 554-7724. To view documents on this or other complaints, go to www.sfgov.org/site/sunshine.

E-mail Shadi Rahimi at shadi@sfbg.com.