The state’s oldest municipal sunshine ordinance was established and extended thanks to the leadership of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which now reports that enforcement was left to an ethics commission which simply won’t act to discipline recalcitrant officials, and thus leaves the task force given oversight of compliance with the law powerless to give citizens the openness they have a right to. The result, explains Claire Mullen, is to let entities like the Recreation and Parks Department flatly lie about the existence of embarrassing public records with impunity.
The San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance, although it sounds bright and cheery, remains shrouded in a cloud of inaction. Meant to increase transparency in city government, it hasn’t emerged from the bureaucratic fog since its establishment in 1994. Cases wait years to be heard and even blatant violations go unpunished, due to infighting and power disputes between the commissions that are supposed to enforce government compliance.
The Sunshine Ordinance outlines citizen’s rights to request document and information. Citizens can take their complaints about request denials to the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, an 11-member committee appointed by the Board of Supervisors to ensure government compliance. If the task force decides a violation has occurred the case is handed over to the Ethics Commission, a five-member appointed board that will supposedly enforce the rulings with fines or ordering documents to be made public.
George Wooding, reporter for the Westside Observer and president of the West of Twin Peaks Central Council, is the complainant in one of the task force’s most recent cases. This spring Wooding requested emails from the Recreation and Park Department multiple times but was told the documents did not exist. What RPD didn’t know was that Wooding had the emails all along.
The task force unanimously found RPD guilty of withholding emails. This is the third major sunshine violation by RPD in three years. Even more surprising, not one RPD employee has been fined, suspended, or faced any kind of punishment or corrective action.
The episode is a case study in the total eclipse of sunshine enforcement in the city, and how one embattled department — the RPD, which has come under heavy scrutiny for efforts to monetize park resources (see “Parks Inc.”, July 12) — used that dysfunction to stifle dissent.
George Wooding v. RPD began when Wooding was asked to be a panelist at a Commonwealth Club event on May 11. The event, titled “Golden Gate Park Under Siege,” was to be a discussion about possible development projects in the park. Other panelists were representatives of environmental and anti-development groups who claimed they were not given time to voice their concerns in Board of Supervisors meetings, and wanted a forum to do so.
Wooding says that the Commonwealth Club was bombarded with phone calls and emails weeks before the discussion.
“They were saying our panel was one-sided, which is really unusual, and the Commonwealth Club told us they were getting a lot of heat for such a little panel discussion,” Wooding said. “It was not going to be a big deal, in all honesty.”
The emails that Wooding had and the department denied include correspondence from Sarah Ballard, RPD’s director of policy and public affairs, to Kerry Curtis, co-chair of the Commonwealth Club Environment & Natural Resources Forum, indicating she had phoned the club as well and asked that the discussion be canceled due to its “deeply biased panel that has no interest in discussing facts.”
There are also emails between Susan Hirsch, director of the City Fields Foundation, a private group that has been installing artificial turf in public parks, from her business email address to the panel moderator Jim Chappell’s private email, urging him to reconsider the event.
“You and I discussed this project years ago; the private sector is contributing far more than $20 million to provide safe, accessibly, and yes, environmentally sound fields for kids all across San Francisco to use. We have a unique private/public partnership with Rec and Park; it’s too bad the focus is on something negative, rather than the positive impact,” Hirsch wrote.
Mark Buell, president of the Recreation and Park Commission, also emailed Greg Dalton, Commonwealth Club’s COO, from his private email address: “I find the title inflammatory, the participants biased, and the fact that no one from the Rec and Park Department invited hard to understand. As president of the Commission I would like to urge the club to both alter the title of the event to ‘issues facing the park’ and have the club ask a representative of the department to be on the panel.”
Shortly thereafter, Buell was added to the panel and the event was renamed “Golden Gate Park Under Siege?”
Buell says the situation has been blown out of proportion. “I got on the panel because I’ve been active with the Commonwealth Club for years and all of a sudden I read a very slanted title about something tantamount to the ruination of Golden Gate Park, and a panel of people who are all critics,” Buell told us.
Wooding says the panel went smoothly, but he was unsettled by the last minute changes. He asked around for any information about what happened and got the emails through a knowledgeable source close to the RPD.
“[RPD] has pissed off a lot of people because they came in with a hammer when they didn’t need a sledge hammer. One of the people they pissed off was really upset and ended up giving me the correspondence,” Wooding told us.
As a journalist, Wooding said, “I was thinking, ‘this is a great story but wait, I can’t use any of this information,’ so I thought about how I could get the information legitimately?”
Wooding immediately emailed Olivia Gong, a RPD secretary, making clear that he was requesting the emails in accordance with the Sunshine Ordinance. Gong replied that the department did not have any documents matching the request.
“Imagine how amazed I was when they claimed they didn’t exist,” Wooding said.
After a second request turned up nothing, Wooding knew they were hiding the emails. He then asked Gong how she had determined the emails did not exist. Gong forwarded emails she had sent to department members who replied they did not have responsive documents.
Wooding then filed a complaint with the task force, which voted unanimously that RPD was in the wrong. Not only did it claim the emails did not exist, but when it became clear that they did, the department said that members deleted the emails because some were sent on private accounts and did not directly pertain to RPD affairs.
“I just delete everything,” Buell says. “It’s not that I did anything, it’s just that I didn’t know the rules that you’re supposed to keep everything.”
Task Force Chair Hope Johnson says she was shocked by this argument. The California Public Records Act, which is more lenient than the Sunshine Ordinance, clearly lists emails as a form of government document that must be handed over on request. The Sunshine Ordinance covers emails as well, and all officials who serve on city boards were required to undergo sunshine training last year, outlining what public documents are and noting that it’s illegal under state law to destroy them.
“Just switching over to another email address lends itself to the idea that this is something they knew was underhanded and would not be received positively by the public,” Johnson said.
She says this is becoming a problem throughout city government.
“There’s not a lot of specificity about keeping emails. They need a retention policy,” Johnson says. “Obviously I think that they prefer it to be as vague as possible.”
Although the task force found RDP in violation, punishment is up to the Ethics Commission, a separate entity at City Hall.
Enter bureaucratic gloom and doom.
Since 1993 the task force has given the Ethics Commission 19 sunshine violation cases. Only one has even been heard. The other 18 were dismissed or are still “pending investigation.” Government officials are therefore under no serious threat if they disobey the law.
Richard Knee, former chair of the task force, says there is obvious animosity between the task force and commission staff. Rather than enforcing punishment, the Ethic Commission staff claim that cases can be dismissed on the grounds of insufficient evidence, or require additional investigation, which stalls the process indefinitely.
“I don’t think there’s any confusion, I think it’s merely resistance,” Knee said. “We are not asking the Ethics Commission to re-adjudicate something we have already adjudicated. When we refer a matter to the Ethics Commission we are asking them to tack some kind of enforcement action on a violation we have already found exists.”
In the one case Ethics did hear, it turned the punishment decision over to the mayor as the “appointing officer,” who did nothing. It has, therefore, never enforced a penalty on any government official that the task force found guilty.
A report released in August by the Civil Grand Jury, entitled “San Francisco’s Ethics Commission: The Sleeping Watchdog,” criticizes the body’s record of inaction on both sunshine and campaign finance complaints.
“Because of the Ethics Commission’s lack of enforcement, no city employee has been disciplined for failing to adhere to the Sunshine Ordinance. The Commission has allowed some city officials to ignore the rulings of the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force,” the report says.
Johnson says that since the report came out, her correspondence with the Ethics Commission has shifted slightly.
“They used to send us letters back saying they dismissed it, but recently we’ve sent over two cases and they agreed that there had been a violation,” Johnson said. “But they said they wouldn’t be able to do enforcements of any kind.”
She says that the Sunshine Ordinance won’t be taken seriously until the very people it is meant to monitor begin to enforce its stipulations.
“It’s difficult with the Ethics Commission because they keep all of their investigations secret,” Johnson says. “There is no external oversight, it is all the politicians, all of the people who appointed them, they are the only people who monitor what they’re doing.”
In response to the report, Johnson hopes the Ethics Commission will be urged to actually hear sunshine cases, and Wooding’s could be one of the first.
“The George Wooding case is a good example of how the Sunshine Ordinance can reveal oppression of a group of people who wanted to come together and have a constructive analysis,” Johnson said. “That should be something that’s allowed, and here’s the very entity that they want to have an analysis and discussion about shutting them down. And here are some documents that prove it.”
Wooding’s case will be heard once more by the task force on Sept. 27. It will almost certainly be sent to the Ethics Commission, but Wooding may be waiting awhile for any resolution.
“It’s probably going to take forever,” Wooding says. “Either I’ll just end up being another file in a cabinet somewhere, or this may even become an example, if it moves through, of how things should be done. There might be a lot more life in this than anyone ever imagined.”