The Sunshine VendettaJournalist Rick Knee

Efforts by certain city legislators to keep the city's Sunshine Ordinance Task Force as ineffective an open-government watchdog as possible continue.

The Board of Supervisors is stalling on eight appointments to the 11-member panel, and of the three they have picked, all incumbents, two have often angered sunshine advocates by siding with city agencies or officials accused by members of the public of open-meeting or public-records violations.

What's in play is retaliation for a finding by the task force in September 2011 that board President David Chiu and Supervisors Scott Wiener, Malia Cohen and Eric Mar had violated local and state open-meeting laws by ramming through a Parkmerced redevelopment contract with 14 pages of amendments that Chiu had slipped in at the last minute.

…the mayor and the Board of Supervisors … made sure that the panel gets minimal funding, staffing and resources, and the board has refused to fill two long-standing vacancies, making it difficult at times to muster a quorum…”

Launching a smear campaign aimed ultimately at purging the eight task force members who had unanimously voted to find the violation, Wiener surreptitiously asked the Budget and Legislative Analyst to survey all city departments on how much it cost to comply with sunshine laws, and how many hours their personnel spent at task force hearings on sunshine-related complaints.

Wiener and his allies hoped the B&L analyst's survey would cast the task force in a bad light. It didn't.

When the board was considering task force appointments in May 2012, Wiener mislabeled the survey as an "audit," said it had shown the task force's operation as inefficient, and accused the task force of saying, "How dare you? How dare you expose us to sunshine?"

First, an audit is an outsider's thorough look at an entity's operations and its net cost or benefit during a given time span, including funding sources and amounts, and expenditure amounts and uses. No such scrutiny of the task force has taken place.

Second, neither the task force nor any of its members said, "How dare you?" The task force did, however, send a letter objecting to Wiener's attempt to keep the survey secret while it was in progress, and as to the survey's content, which included questions that task force members thought were vague or vacuous.

Third and perhaps most important, the survey revealed that the task force's operation and the 1993 ordinance that created it (Administrative Code Sections 67.1 et sequitur) result in very small out-of-pocket costs and, in fact, produce certain significant, if difficult-to-quantify, benefits. Some key findings:

• Compliance with state and local sunshine laws carried "identified" costs of about $4.27 million to the city in calendar 2011, of which nearly $3.28 million stemmed from adhering to state laws. So the Sunshine Ordinance added $997,676 to the cost.

Since San Francisco's population was then a bit over 805,000, the latter cost amount worked out to about $1.24 per resident per year.

What's more, $4.27 million was just above 0.6 percent of the city's $6.83 billion budget for fiscal 2011-12.

• "[I]t is likely that without the (task force), some portion of complaints would be directed to other public bodies, such as the courts, which would in turn incur costs."

In other words, the task force has saved the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in court expenses. And there's no telling how many millions of dollars the local and state sunshine laws have saved the city by enabling the exposure or prevention of backroom deals.

Whatever inefficiencies exist with the task force can be laid at the feet of the mayor and the Board of Supervisors. They've made sure that the panel gets minimal funding, staffing and resources, and the board has refused to fill two long-standing vacancies, making it difficult at times to muster a quorum since task force members are volunteers with outside responsibilities such as family and work.

Two years ago, the board's failure to appoint a physically-disabled member forced the task force to take a five-month hiatus, exacerbating a backlog of complaints filed by members of the public.

Because of the difficulty in mustering a quorum, the task force has been unable to hold as many special meetings as its members would like in order to reduce the complaints backlog.

Even worse are the resulting delays to complainants trying to obtain disclosable public records.

The process of appointing task force members for the 2014-16 term looks farcical. And ominous.

At the May 15 meeting of the board's Rules Committee, which conducts initial vetting of applicants for city policy bodies, the two supervisors present, chair Norman Yee and Katy Tang, (David Campos was absent) complained that there wasn't enough racial/ethnic diversity among the 13 candidates.

That didn't deter them from recommending the reappointments of Todd David, Louise Fischer and David Pilpel, all Anglos.

Before the full board five days later Yee complained again, this time that lack of a regular schedule and frequent switching of meeting dates were making attendance difficult for task force members.

Either Yee had no clue of the facts or he was lying. The task force normally meets the first Wednesday of each month and its subcommittees usually meet during the third week of the month. Meeting postponements and cancellations are the result, not the cause, of difficulties in mustering a quorum, due to the vacancies – which now number three.

In gushing over David, Fischer and Pilpel at the board's May 20 meeting, Wiener offered no evidence or detail of their alleged accomplishments and ignored the fact that David has missed six task force meetings since March 2013, including those of last January, February and April. Until the board fills the other seats, the five remaining incumbents – Chris Hyland, Bruce Oka, David Sims, Allyson Washburn and yours truly – stay on as "holdover" members.

How all this plays out and how long it will take are anybody's guess. A key determinant is whether certain supervisors will abandon their vendetta. The Rules Committee is tentatively scheduled on June 5 to resume considering task force applicants.

Now, about that audit: good idea. Wiener or any other official would serve the city well by initiating it.

 

Richard Knee has served on the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force since July 2002 and is not seeking reappointment. He is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco.

June 2014

John St. CroixCourt to Ethics' St. Croix: Cough Up the Records

In a stunning defeat for the SF Ethics Department's Director John St. Croix, the longest holdout against the City's 14-year old voter-approved Sunshine Ordinance, Judge Ernest Goldsmith ordered the disclosure of 24 documents withheld from Allen Grossman, a long-time activist for open government, who argued that Sunshine Ordinance Sec. 67.24 requires disclosure of city attorney's advice regarding public-records.

St. Croix held that his communications with the City Attorney are protected from public scrutiny under attorney-client confidentiality privilege provisions "on the advice of the City Attorney's Office." St. Croix has long held that Ethics is exempt from most open government laws that are routinely observed by other City offices, including the California Public Records Act and the Sunshine Ordinance.

St. Croix has long held that Ethics is exempt from most open government laws that are routinely observed by other City offices, including the California Public Records Act and the Sunshine Ordinance."

The court ruled that Mr. Grossman, not Ethics, was right on the law, and we acknowledge his heroic stand against an illegal evasion of the public's right to know.

This is the second time Mr. Grossman has prevailed in court against St. Croix; perhaps this latest defeat will serve as his "teachable moment." We aren't holding our breath.

Editor's Note: Allen Grossman's attorney, Michael Ng has just been advised by the City Attorney that the St. Croix intends to appeal the decision. Atta boy -- a captain should always go down with his ship.

November 2013

Serving Two Masters

city hallIt’s only fair that the Board of Supervisors admit the obvious: open government laws do not apply to the Board of Supervisors. It is exempt from Sunshine laws because it appoints the board that enforces them.

As the new, unwitting appointees to the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force (SOTF) are sworn in, they are legally bound to enforce the laws they oversee. Little do they know that they will also serve a conflicting set of unwritten laws imposed by the Board of Supervisors.

Who knew there were unwritten laws for Sunshine? Doesn’t the public have a right to know what they are? We’ve long known that City Hall’s “support” of Sunshine is mere lip service, but so far there has not been a coordinated effort to subvert the law — at least not to our knowledge. ”

The environment of impunity at City Hall, the result of the Ethics Commission’s refusal to pursue Sunshine violations, pales in comparison to the hostile take-over last month of the SOTF by the Supervisors. The removal of Bruce Wolfe, Jay Costa and Hanley Chan, three seasoned veterans of the struggle to bring full disclosure to City Hall, and the refusal to reappoint Allyson Washburn, the League of Women Voters’ nominee, and Suzanne Manneh, the New American Media’s nominee — both highly qualified and knowledgeable members who are willing to serve — has effectively killed the voter-mandated Task Force.

Who knew there were unwritten laws for Sunshine? Doesn’t the public have a right to know what they are? We’ve long known that City Hall’s “support” of Sunshine is mere lip service, but so far there has not been a coordinated effort to subvert the law — at least not to our knowledge.

The Task Force is already months behind in its hearings and out of compliance with its mandate through no fault of its own. The Board of Supervisors created this mess and must fix it immediately.

September 2012

 

What Price Sunshine?

Supervisor Scott Weiner’s request to determine the “costs of compliance with Sunshine” is a fool’s errand. Especially the way he’s going about it. Wiener ordered a “Survey of the Costs of Compliance with the City Sunshine Ordinance.” All City departments received the 5-page “Survey” with directions to return it to the Board’s Budget Analyst by February 3, 2012.

Quantifying expenses has been discussed exhaustively at meetings of the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force for many years, yet Supervisor Weiner did not even contact the Task Force to design a useful survey.”

 

It’s apparent that whoever designed the survey has little familiarity with the Sunshine Ordinance, a measure passed by the voters in 1999, and that’s not uncommon at City Hall. Few City workers know which requests are specifically required by “Sunshine” and which are required by the umbrella legislation, the California Public Records Act (CPRA). Most requests for information are required by CPRA, while the Sunshine Ordinance tweaks the response times, stops bureaucratic recalcitrance evoked “in the public interest,” a favorite abuse of Willie Brown’s administration, and provides a hearing mechanism for failure to respond.

Quantifying expenses has been discussed exhaustively at meetings of the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force for many years, yet Supervisor Weiner did not even contact the Task Force to design a useful survey. A valid cost analysis could be useful—not that we would ever want to go back to the bad old days.

So now legislative analysts are going through hundreds of pages of departmental responses to a faulty survey. From what we’ve seen, not a single department is clear on the concept. All requests are lumped together, whether a response is mandated by State law (CPRA) or City law (Sunshine). If Weiner wanted to find the cost of open government, his order should have spelled it out. CPRA costs should not be accrued to Sunshine. And we still wonder what purpose this expensive survey serves?

We would hope that City Budget Analyst Harvey Rose has a little round file at the end of his desk and that he files this waste of time and resources accordingly.

March 2012

Parkmerced Agreement Illegally Excluded Public

Lurking in the darkest corners of San Francisco's Parkmerced Development Agreement is the question of enforceability of the agreement's rent control provision. The elusive answer remains shadowed in odd mystery, and the Board of Supervisors has done little to shed much needed light on the controversial issue.

Can the City require replacement of existing rent controlled housing scheduled for demolition?

California's Costa-Hawkins Act prevents local regulations from requiring rent control on new construction. Rent control on the new apartments might make the project economically impractical.

But the City Attorney's Office position is that rent control is part of the contract, and there is no reason to believe the contract will be violated or challenged. Despite that assurance, the Board of Supervisors spent several hours discussing the enforceability question during its March 29, 2011 hearing on appeal of the Planning Commission's 4-3 vote approval of the environmental impact report.

The Board ultimately chose to continue their decision on the appeal to May 24th to allow time to consider the oddly mysterious legal standing of the City to enforce such a condition.Parkmerced

Meanwhile, the Parkmerced Development Agreement itself was assigned to the Board's Land Use Committee for May 16, 2011. Committee Chair Eric Mar opened the meeting by explaining that, because the item had been improperly noticed, no action could be taken—the item would be continued to the committee's May 24th hearing.

Supervisor Sean Elsbernd introduced "technical amendments" to the agreement. Discussion ensued, including enforceability of the rent control provision and Chair Mar's concern that energy consumption might need revision. Members of the public were provided copies of the revised agreement and were told it would be available online later that day.

The newly introduced amendments were then approved by the committee, notwithstanding Chair Mar's repeated declaration that no action would be taken on the agreement until May 24th.

One week later, on May 24th, two separate meetings were scheduled that involved approval of the Parkmerced project, one was the Land Use Committee's continued discussion at 9 am and the other was the regularly scheduled meeting of the full Board of Supervisors later that same day at 2 pm. The Land Use Committee was to make a referral on the agreement to the Board. The Board was then scheduled to vote on approval of both the Parkmerced environmental impact report and the Development Agreement itself.

At the May 24th Land Use Committee, a brief presentation of the amendments previously introduced at the May 16th hearing was provided. Then Supervisor David Chiu introduced fourteen pages of new amendments specifically directed at tenants' rights—the murky subject at issue for two months. These new amendments were not mentioned at the beginning of the hearing or at the meeting one week prior.

Supervisor Chiu said he and city attorney Charles Sullivan had stayed awake all night working on the amendments and Supervisor Cohen, a member of the committee, admitted she had only had about one hour to review the newly introduced amendments. Chair Mar expressed concern with a lack of transparency and that approval of the amendments would constitute a violation of Sunshine Ordinance public comment requirements.

The city attorney told the committee the agenda description of the Development Agreement was broad enough to encompass Chiu's amendments. The amendments were approved, leaving only a few hours for the public to review and comment on amendments to a contract provision the Board had allowed itself two months to review. Several hours later on the same day, the Development Agreement was approved by the full Board.

On June 20, 2011, an anonymous complaint was filed with the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force against Supervisor Mar for alleged violations of the Sunshine Ordinance.

The Sunshine Ordinance Task Force concluded that the last minute introduction of fourteen pages of amendments did not provide adequate time for members of the public to review and comment on them as required under Sunshine Ordinance Sections 67.15(a) and (b), and were substantive changes to the Development Agreement for which the agenda description for the meeting was not adequate under Sunshine Ordinance Section 67.7(b).

Supervisors Eric Mar, David Chiu, Scott Wiener, and Malia Cohen were found in violation of those sections of the ordinance. Each supervisor is required to adhere to state and local open government laws, and their acknowledgement of their own lack of review of important and controversial amendments was minimal at best.

The Parkmerced Development Agreement had been deferred two additional months for review and there was no reason that another week to allow transparency in the process would damage the agreement. This project is scheduled to take up to 30 years to complete and many residents will be displaced from their homes in the process.

Hope Johnson is Chair of the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance Task Force.

December 2011

 

City the Big Winner As Sunshine Proves Its ValueKimo CrossmanAllen Grossman

Kimo Crossman and Allen Grossman are the kind of citizens we admire. These two advocates for open government have conducted their own war on backroom deals that has taken years out of their lives—so far at their own expense. They’ve been vilified by Ken Garcia in the Examiner and in articles in the Chronicle as well as the SF Weekly for “abusing the system” by requesting that the City turn over public information in the time required by law and in the form they requested. They were called “nuisance,” “vexing gadfly,”

This time Kimo Crossman’s bird-dogging led to a savings of $3.5 million in transfer taxes from real estate interests of Morgan Stanley. This kind of information should be rewarded under the City’s 2006 Whistleblower Act, but Assessor Phil Ting has not been willing to part with the reward. This prompted Crossman to hire high-powered attorney Steve Gruel, known as a no-holds-barred courtroom brawler, to get Crossman what is coming to him. “This is a complete win-win situation. The City gains with a huge tax payment and Mr. Crossman’s hard work earns him an award,” said Attorney Gruel.

While Ting shared information willingly, some bureaucrats decide not to comply with Sunshine and the only recourse the public has is a potentially expensive legal battle. Since the passage of Prop G in 1999, no one has been willing to risk a trial. That is, until Allen Grossman sued the Ethics Commission and its Executive Director, John St. Croix. Sunshine won a major victory in January as St. Croix settled out of court on charges of suppressing public records without justification for his “summary dismissal of every violation by City officials, including the Mayor and the City Attorney, of open government laws referred to the Ethics Commission by the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, a total of 14 such referrals over the past five years.”

The Sunshine Task Force depends on the Ethics Commission to enforce open government laws and can only make recommendations to the Director, an effort that has been severely crippled by St. Croix’s refusal to pursue a single violation or to make public the documents and records that would indicate his justification for the denial. St. Croix’s failure to comply with the original records requests cost the City (and taxpayers) $24,900 in fees to Grossman’s attorneys. Grossman also has access to the records. We hope he will share them.

Crossman and Grossman have spared neither time nor expense in pursuit of Sunshine scofflaws, and have been unfairly maligned in the press. We believe the City benifits from increased public information, Westside readers want to know, and so do we.

April 2010

Herrera Should Get Serious About Sunshineopendome at city hall

Our public-records laws are broken. When we need information from the City, it’s far from certain that we will get it. Many citizens are learning the hard way that the law may be on their side, but enforcement has been left to the good faith efforts of the Ethics Commission. The commission, relying on advice from the City Attorney, has dismissed every alleged violation since San Francisco voters passed Prop G (Sunshine) in 1999 by a 16 point margin. In truth, the enforcement of the law is based on decisions made behind the City Attorney’s closed doors.

No Department has more influence on the level of city entities’ compliance with open government laws than the City Attorney’s Office, and since we were invited to meet with City Attorney Herrera (see “Guess Who’s Not Running for Mayor” on this page) we decided to ask a few questions — especially after Herrera’s comment about his department’s involvement in everything City Hall, “...you name it—we’re involved in it.”

Our question was, what was the City Attorney going to do about the sad state of open government in the City with what some consider the most powerful sunshine laws on the books? Herrera’s response was typical political banter — he loves sunshine and provides his calendars, etc. This may or may not be true, but the ultimate responsibility for compliance rests on his shoulders. In fact, the City Attorney’s Office has itself been the subject of numerous complaints to the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, the 11 member body responsible for monitoring open-government laws. And the task force has upheld many of those complaints as violations of the law.

City voters spoke clearly in 1999, despite the opposition of then-City Attorney Louise Renne, who publicly opposed the stronger laws. Herrera, Renne’s protégé, appears to have defeated the laws behind the scenes, so bureaucrats can ignore the laws with impunity. (Please read the Task Force Report for 2008 on their website: sfgov.org/sunshine).

The task force is empowered to interpret the laws and recommend enforcement, not the City Attorney. The taxpayers pay to maintain that body; but day to day, City entities receiving public records requests must rely on the City Attorney’s advice to determine whether a given piece of information must be disclosed. In the eyes of the law, seeking such advice constitutes a good-faith effort to comply with the sunshine laws.

The problem is that the City Attorney at times gives advice that seems to run counter to the task force’s interpretations, and there is no recourse, short of a lawsuit, without cooperation from the City Attorney. We encourage Mr. Herrera to step up to the plate.

June 2009