Ting wants instant public records

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When Assessor and mayoral candidate Phil Ting came by for his endorsement interview, we talked about open government, and I mentioned an idea that sunshine advocate Kimo Crossman first proposed back in 2008: Why not make all city documents (with a few limited exceptions) public the moment they're created?

Why not send a copy of every memo, every email, every contract, every check, everything anyone at City Hall produces, into a public server, where the rest of us can see what our elected officials and civil servants are doing? No more hassles with sunshine requests -- the docs would already be there, in a searchable database.

Well, apparently Ting liked the idea -- and it's now part of his mayoral platform. In a release posted Sept. 13, Ting argues that "everything should be public."

And I mean just about everything. I think that every email, every memo, every check, every contract, every phone message, every tweet, every cell phone call and every other single government document that is not part of an employee personnel decision, about an immediate public safety issue, protected by state law or part of a pending lawsuit should be made public at the time it is created. The reality is that technology has outstripped our city’s Sunshine laws. And it would be far less expensive – and far more productive – simply to have all digital public records (which is now nearly all public records) simply posted to a City Sunshine Site at the time they are created. This site should quickly include, and certainly be the basis of, an Application Programming Interface (API) that gives San Franciscans the tools and the data they need to help hold government accountable.

He explains:

So as mayor, if I send an email to my chief of staff on an issue – that should be made public when I send it. When I have a meeting at City Hall or anywhere else, that would be part of an online calendar, which should be made public. A direct message – a tweet from the mayoral account – just about anything that is created, said or discussed should be made public in real time.

Every document created by city government (with the noted exceptions) should be made available to the public at the time it is created. That should include every check written – and every dollar spent or promised. And every contract. And every subcontract. Everything.

There is simply no supportable reason for any work product created by a public employee to be hidden from the public – or perhaps even worse, to be put behind the barrier of a “sunshine” process that is now so complicated, time consuming and expensive that it promises public accountability without always being able to deliver it.

It makes perfect sense -- the technology exists, and is relatively inexpensive (particularly compared to the time it takes city agencies to respond to public records requests). It would be easy to allow people creating confidential documents (legal strategy memos in the City Attorney's Office, say, or personnel records) to add a tag to the file that would keep it out of the public database -- and, of course, it would be easy for an agency (or the Sunshine Task Force) to search those tagged files later to see what should and shouldn't have been kept secret.

I don't think anyone else has ever done this; San Francisco could be the first city in the country to make sunshine a part of everyday life at city Hall. I hope this becomes part of the mayoral debates.