New redaction policy means less public access to Board of Supervisors documents
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The Board of Supervisors Clerk's Office has quietly begun redacting contact information including phone numbers, street addresses, and e-mail addresses from all communications sent to the supervisors by members of the public.
The Clerk's Office will not redact personal information if individuals indicate that they authorize its release, Clerk of the Board Angela Calvillo wrote in a May 23 memo. Yet the policy shift brings to an end a long-standing tradition in which members of the public could peruse copies of all of the weekly communications to the Board simply by asking to see the petitions and communications file.
Instead, Clerk's Office staff are now asking people which items they want to see before letting them access the file, in case the requested items need to be redacted.
"If it's a redacted item, it needs to be handled differently," Clerk's Office deputy director Madeleine Licavoli explained, noting that a Controller's Office report wouldn't need redactions, but public communications would.
The COB's office does provide a one-line summary of each item in the Board's weekly agenda packet, but it's hard to know which pieces are of interest until they are read in full. And the public's contact information has always provided a handy way for citizens to identify like-minded individuals and for reporters to find story sources and material.
Licavoli said the new policy did not occur in response to specific incidents or complaints, but as a result of a discussion about the need to redact personal information. "The first time people encounter this policy, they say, 'Whoa, what's this about?'<0x2009>" Licavoli acknowledged. "But we're trying to protect personal information, not make things harder for people who just want to look at them.
"We are always trying to expand what's available," Licavoli added, noting that the Clerk's Office is working to ensure that when the supervisors return from recess next month, people will be able to access redacted public communications by viewing a CD in the Clerk's Office.
But open government advocates claim there is no provision for the redaction policy under the California Public Records Act or the city's voter-approved Sunshine Ordinance. Instead, they fear the new policy reflects a growing trend of trying to scare people into believing that the public's right to privacy trumps its right to know.
Sunshine advocate Kimo Crossman told the Guardian that the overwhelming reason people need access to redacted contact information is for political speech or technology-savvy new media outlets.
"The city is preventing it because they don't want to have organized citizen push-back," Crossman said. "This is not about private personal information like your blood pressure."
Like Crossman, Sunshine Ordinance Task Force member Rick Knee also opposes the clerk's new requirement that people must request the release of their contact information.
"There has to be a very narrow application of the redaction policy," Knee told us. "If the law does not require it, the default is for disclosure."
Bob Stern of the Los Angeles-based Center of Governmental Studies told us he understands the arguments for privacy. "But if an individual does not want their contact information posted online, it should be an opt-out situation at the very worst," Stern added.
But some blame the new policy on San Francisco's sunshine advocates, such as Crossman, claiming it was their attempts to make databases to screen Sunshine Ordinance Task Force appointees that led to the tightening of the redaction policy.
"Certain people insisted that the Clerk of the Board make a policy, thereby forcing them down this particular path," said Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition. "These folks wanted a confrontation, but they ended up worse off than [under] the ad hoc, unarticulated policy that existed."
Scheer believes that if this redaction policy is contested, the government could win. "If you're not a reporter, then people care more about their privacy than access," he said.
"Everyone is terrified about identity theft," he continued. "There have been all sorts of horror stories about the government inadvertently leaking information. And anything the Clerk of the Board agrees to give to one person, they have to give to everyone, including sleazebags who put it into a big database and sell it to spammers and telemarketers."
But Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, believes that if the case goes to court, the judge would conclude that this information is presumed to be public. "To withhold information, you have to find a specific public interest in keeping it confidential," Francke said.
Francke notes that the CPRA exempts, for example, the home addresses of school district employees, but does not delegate the authority to create new exemptions. "When you have rules that say apples, oranges, and bananas are exempt, that provides evidence that fruit as a general category is not exempt. The example of CPRA exemptions shows they were decided against a background of documented, actual harassment, not the decision of a faceless bureaucrat."
Francke believes public organizing is hindered by the new policy.
"The value of privacy is not one that the government decides," he said. "It's your choice how private you want to be. It's your privacy, not the government's. So unless they give you an informed opt-out choice, then what they are managing is not privacy but government secrecy."