The return of Willie Brownism to the sunshine task force


As an advocate for the passage of the  San Francisco sunshine ordinance and task force in the early 1990s, I felt obligated to take my first and only City Hall position and serve as a founding member of the task force. I served for l0 years and helped with many other good members to build the task force into a strong and respected agency  for helping citizens get access to records and meetings and hold city officials accountable for suppressing access.

The task force is the only place where citizens can file an access complaint without an attorney or a fee and force a city official, including the mayor, to come before the task force for questioning and a ruling on whether they had violated  sunshine laws, The task force lacked enforcement power, but it still annoyed of city officials, including Mayor Willie Brown.

In fact, Willie spent a good deal of time trying to kick me off the task force. He used one jolly  maneuver after another, even getting an agent to make a phony complaint against me for violating the ordinance with an email. (The complaint went nowhere.) I refused to budge and decided to stay on the task force until Willie left office—on the principle that that neither the mayor nor anybody else from City Hall could arbitrarily kick members off the task force. When Willie left office after two terms, I resigned with the hope that the Willie principle had been established.

The principle held, until last Thursday (May 17) when the board’s rules committee (Sup. Mark Farrell, Chair Jane Kim, and Sup. David Campos) brought Willie Brownism back to the task force with a vengeance. The committee moved to sabotage the task force by sacking or refusing to appoint four qualified candidates from three organizations who are mandated by the ordinance to choose representatives for the task force because of the organizations' special open government  credentials. Their representatives served as experienced, knowledgeable members who were independent counters to nominees of supervisors who were often  promoting an anti-sunshine agenda. The committee asked the organizations to come up with more names. There was no explanation nor apology to the candidates nor to their organizations. It was a nasty slap at members and organizations that have served the task force well for years. And this arbitrary demand  will make  it virtually impossible for these organizations to come up with a "list of candidates" to run the supervisorial gauntlet.  Who wants to go before the supervisors on a list for a bout of public character assassination?

 Specifically, the committee:

+unanimously moved to sack the two incumbents (Allyson Washburn from the League of Women Voters) and Suzanne Manneh (California New Media.)  The League was mandated to name a representative because of its tradition and experience with good government and public access issues.  California New Media was mandated to name a member to insure there would always be a journalist of color on the task force.

+unanimously refused to seat two representatives from the Northern
California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the sponsor of the ordinance with a long tradition in open government and First Amendment issues.  One SPJ  mandated  representative was for a journalist (Doug Comstock, editor of the West of Twin Peaks Observer, one of the best neighborhood papers in town and a former chair of the task force.) The second mandated seat was for an attorney (Ben Rosenfeld.)

+tried to knock out incumbent Bruce Wolfe on motion of Farrell, but Wolfe survived on a 2-l vote.   

+voted unanimously to approve David Pilpel, a former task force member who is known by observers for delaying meetings with is  bursts of lengthy nitpicking on almost every item.   He then usually votes against citizen complaints and for protecting  city officials on the basis of spotting   “onerous” burdens caused by the complaint

+voted unanimously for four new persons to the task force while sacking  and refusing to appoint able members with experience and expertise without a word of thanks. The four new members are "a "a bunch of neophytes," according Rick Knee, outgoing SPJ member for 10 years.

Knee, a former task force chair surveying the carnage,  said that the committee’s actions stemmed “partly from a desire  by some supervisors to sabotage the task force and the ordinance itself, and partly from a vendetta by certain supervisors after the task force found several months ago that the board violated local and state open meeting laws when it railroaded some last minute changes to a contract on the Park Merced development project without allowing sufficient time for public service review and comment.” He noted that the developer "had slipped in a 14-page package of amendments at the llth hour"  to get board approval.

Knee said  that the rules committee is recommending sacking two incumbents and apparently hopes to sack two more. Farrell wanted to push out a fifth but was outvoted by Kim and Campos.  All five candidates, he said,  “have done excellent work, each brought a unique perspective and, while we had our share of disagreements among ourselves, all shared a passion for open government and for making sure that everyone who came before us got a fair hearing.”

Hanley Chan, an outgoing task force member,  backed up Knee's point in an email. He  wrote that "I spoke with Sup. David Chiu and he told me that the rest of the supervisors will not appoint any incumbent, because we defied the city attorney's opinion (the Park Merced  case). ""You should have made a right decision. I was told by the city attorney that it was legal, my aides explained it to the task force and you should have made a better judgment.'"  Chan said that the rules committee ouster move  was "retribution on how we voted that day."  Chan said that "Bruce Wolfe and all the task force members made a wonderful argument and stuck to their guns." The task force vote was a  unanimous 8-0 vote.The point: defy the supervisors and city attorney and the boys and girls in the back room and  get blasted off   the task force, bang, bang, bang, bang. 

The committee choreographed the move smoothly.  Farrell as the heavy  would make the move. Kim would agree and facilitate as chair. Campos would go along reluctantly. The deputy city attorney would be supine through the process  even though the supervisors were breaking precedent and misinterpreting the ordinance.  Sunshine candidates and advocates in the audience were furious and emails have been crackling back and forth ever since.

Campos later told me that he went along because he could see he didn’t have the votes. He said the organization’s candidates “were eminently qualified,” that they should have been appointed, and that he would fight for them. He said he would ask Kim’s office to set the issue for hearing at the next rules meeting or call for a special meeting. Kim did not return calls for comment.

I asked Campos what the organizations should do. “They should stand by their candidates,” he said.

I concur. The Society of Professional Journalists,  the League of Women Voters, and California New Media and their open government allies should stand by their candidates, lobby for them with the rules committee and the full board, and get out the word about this attempted coup in the most important court of all, the court of public opinion. Make this an election issue with all incumbents and candidates.  Let public officials know there are serious consequences to supporting Willie Brownism on the sunshine task force, the first and best local task force of its kind in the country if not the world.

The good news is that the rules committee has demonstrated, with its sneak attack,  the value of the task force for citizens and open government and why it is a San Francisco institution that needs to be saved and strengthened.  All of this  illustrates once again my  favorite axiom of mine. In San Francisco, the public is generally safe, except when the mayor is in his office and the supervisors are in session. b3