Sunshine Ordinance, Now 17 Years Old, Still Has Baby Teeth
March 18, 2011
By SCOTT JAMES
For some, these are dark days for San Francisco’s Sunshine Ordinance.
The measure, which was meant to foster transparency in city government, has instead devolved into the Rodney Dangerfield of rule books — it don’t get no respect. Despite violations, no city employee has been disciplined for failing to abide by the ordinance, which requires that city dealings be open to public review — including many documents, officials’ schedules and meetings.
The ordinance took effect in 1994. It is a way to hold city officials accountable, and an alternative to costly civil lawsuits to obtain public records. An 11-member volunteer citizen panel, appointed by the Board of Supervisors, enforces the ordinance. Since it took effect, 27 instances of serious violations requiring disciplinary action have been cited, according to the citizen panel, the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force.
But those cases have been dismissed or moved into bureaucratic oblivion by the Ethics Commission, which is responsible for punishing sunshine violators.
“The Ethics Commission doesn’t do anything,” said Allyson Washburn, a member of the task force. “They don’t enforce our orders of determination.”
Without consequences for violations, Ms. Washburn said, the ordinance lacks teeth.
Richard Knee, chairman of the task force, said the Ethics Commission was adversarial.
As a result, the task force is trying to change the ordinance to limit the commission’s role and impose fines of up to $5,000 against city workers for violations, money that would be paid out of their own pockets. The change would require voter approval.
Some city leaders, however, feel under attack.
Matt Dorsey, spokesman for the city attorney’s office, said in an e-mail, “The task force has degenerated into a rogue, lawless jury that beats up on city departments and tries to get conscientious public employees fired.”
Mr. Dorsey and other city public information managers said they spent an extraordinary amount of time and resources complying with the ordinance. They described task force hearings as a tedious kangaroo court.
John St. Croix, executive director of the Ethics Commission, said that the work of the task force often lacked due process and that his department had “an obligation to review the cases.”
Asked about the 27 cases that have gone nowhere, Mr. St. Croix said 14 were dismissed based on advice from the city attorney’s office that other laws took precedence over the ordinance, 12 others remained under review and one was referred elsewhere and apparently ended without action.
Interviews with about a dozen key figures — including city leaders and sunshine advocates — revealed a long list of reasons for current aggravations: legal loopholes, personality conflicts, city efforts to prevent embarrassing revelations and a misunderstanding of the ordinance’s scope.
Nevertheless, the ordinance can be effective.
Dorian Maxwell, a city transit worker, was denied access to his complete personnel file until the task force intervened. It took the case in October, and at a March 8 hearing the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency finally produced documents whose existence it had previously denied.
In the spectator gallery, Mr. Maxwell’s eyes welled as he flipped through the pages, upset by what he called false information in his file.
Hope Johnson, a task force member, strongly criticized the transit agency for what she called “egregious” behavior in Mr. Maxwell’s case.
Paul Rose, spokesman for the agency, said, “We absolutely care about the Sunshine Ordinance and respond on a daily basis.”
But not always in a timely manner. Two recent Sunshine Ordinance requests made to the agency by The Bay Citizen were not fulfilled in accordance with the ordinance’s 15-day deadline. One request, filed Jan. 21, for records regarding dangerous cycling lanes, was complied with last week — after the agency was informed that a failure to disclose would be reported in this column.
Mr. Rose said the agency tracked its success rate for complying with the ordinance, but he did not respond to a request to make that information public.
If all of this sounds like an ordeal, well, that might just be the point.
Bruce B. Brugmann, editor and publisher of the firebrand San Francisco Bay Guardian weekly newspaper, helped create the ordinance. Mr. Brugmann said that the ordinance and task force hearings put public officials in an uncomfortable spotlight, and that was often enough to produce results.
“It’s an evolving document,” Mr. Brugmann said, noting that the ordinance had already been strengthened once, 1999. He welcomed the new efforts to make punishments for violations more likely.
“It’s a way for citizens to get some relief,” he said, “and some accountability at City Hall.”
Scott James is an Emmy-winning television journalist and novelist who lives in San Francisco.