Sunburned

Sunburned

Document battle frustrates the mayor’s flacks and galvanizes a new breed of activist

By Amanda Witherell

The Mayor’s Office of Communications has for months been fighting with Sup. Chris Daly and several unrelated activists over the release of public documents. By denying and ignoring Sunshine Ordinance requests — including some by the Guardian — the office has garnered a reputation for secrecy that has transformed a disparate group of activists into a united force pushing the boundaries of the city’s landmark open government law.

The Sunshine Ordinance Task Force (SOTF) on July 25 found the MOC in violation of the Sunshine Ordinance on two counts, but the mayor’s spokespeople defied its decision and refused to release seven pages of MOC e-mails that Daly requested. Jennifer Petrucione, who spoke for the mayor at the meeting and left before a final decision had been reached on one of the violations, told the Guardian, “I was contemptuous of the process.”

Her view and that of mayoral press secretary Peter Ragone, as they explained to the Guardian, is that the voluminous nature of some requests and the political motivations of document requesters like Daly violate the spirit of the Sunshine Ordinance, which voters passed in 1993 to encourage public access to how decisions are made in city hall. Instead of disclosing documents, the MOC has found loopholes in the broadly written law permitting them to hide information.

“We have the right to withhold certain documents if they are recommendations,” Petrucione told us July 28, even though the task force generally supports disclosure of such documents. In another case of ignoring a request, she chalked it up to an accident: “That was not us trying to avoid Sunshine, it was us doing it too quickly and overlooking things.”

While both Ragone and Petrucione insisted it’s their policy to release everything they can, even if it’s logistically difficult given the volume of requests they receive, they’re still having a hard time producing documents in a timely fashion. So some activists have reacted to early inaction with ever more voluminous and complicated requests.

The day after we discussed the MOC Sunshine Ordinance policies with Petrucione and Ragone, Mayor Gavin Newsom appeared at a town hall meeting in the Richmond, where we asked him about the dispute with Daly’s office. “I haven’t been privy to the details,” he told us. “I would like to see us readily provide whatever information is being requested. I said, ‘Peter, just send all the information, even in the spirit of the ordinance. We have nothing to hide.’”

Two days later, Petrucione called the Guardian to say the mayor had ordered her office to release the disputed documents after all. She told us, “You guys want to make an issue of it, so we decided to just put them out there.”

BURIED DOCUMENTS

The disputed e-mails requested by Sup. Daly involve Ragone’s purchase last year of a tenancy in common (TIC) from which two disabled residents had been evicted by a landlord evoking the Ellis Act, as first reported by the blog http://www.beyondchron.org.

Daly was curious if there might be any connection between Ragone’s new digs and Newsom’s vetoes of proposals that would have protected tenants from those kinds of evictions. Daly’s office filed an immediate disclosure request for any documents regarding evictions or condominium conversions.

After the MOC initially responded that they didn’t have any such documents, which Daly’s office didn’t believe, the issue dragged out over four months in front of the SOTF, with the MOC eventually turning over about 25 relevant documents but withholding seven e-mails, with Petrucione citing Section 67.24 of the Sunshine Ordinance: “Only the recommendation of the author may, in such circumstances, be withheld as exempt.”

Daly appeared at the meeting to speak on his own behalf. “I’m not attempting to have a gotcha on the Mayor’s Office. I’m attempting to form a decision,” he said.

The task force doesn’t have the power of subpoena or investigative authority — its members can’t look at the e-mails and decide if they’re public — so the matter was referred to the Ethics Commission, which does. Petrucione, who had the documents at the meeting, could have just handed them to Daly. She told the Guardian, “We’re not concerned about what the e-mails say. We’re trying to adhere to the letter and the spirit of the law.”

In fact, the documents contained only mildly embarrassing information, with a pair of e-mails from Petrucione plotting ways to overshadow the news of Newsom’s tenant protection veto last September by releasing word of the veto late on a Friday and coupling it with a high-profile announcement of San Francisco’s Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, “which will bury any interest in the Ellis release.”

But the MOC’s resistance to disclosure — both to Daly and to activists also seeking information during that same time period — has only served to galvanize those seeking public records.

ACTIVISTS’ SUNRISE

Everyone starts with a little kernel of concern, a reason to wonder or worry about what those elected officials are up to. Kimo Crossman last year wanted to know more about the sketchy municipal wi-fi deal with Google and Earthlink that Newsom was proposing. After hitting initial roadblocks when making requests for specific information like a copy of the contract, Crossman started asking for reams of documents, anything remotely related to the TechConnect plan. His concerns have now expanded to disaster preparedness issues and finally to the Sunshine Ordinance itself.

Last week at the SOTF meeting, where Crossman is now a regular member of the audience, he filed a complaint that the mayor had not provided the opportunity for public comment at a Disaster Council meeting June 5. After reviewing video and transcripts of the meeting and hearing Petrucione’s evolving explanations, the task force found a violation.

Crossman — who at one time was being considered for “vexatious litigant” status by city officials who wanted to tone down his voluminous requests — was pleased and said, “I thought it was a success that the mayor was held accountable to Sunshine just like everyone else in the city.”

Perhaps the violation will inspire the Mayor’s Office to fulfill the outstanding records requests of other citizens, like Wayne Lanier, who had a little home improvement issue.

About a year ago, Lanier and a few of his neighbors repaired the sidewalk around a few trees and planted some flowerpots in front of their homes. Then the city slapped them with a $700 tax, under the Occupancy Assessment Fee for Various Encroachments.

The ordinance was introduced by the mayor and passed the Board of Supervisors in July 2005. It was designed to tax property owners who eat up the public right-of-way with stairways and fences, but the ordinance became what Lanier likes to call the “tree and beauty tax.”

Lanier wanted to know what kinds of meetings and discussions had led up to this ordinance, so in March he sent a Sunshine Ordinance request to Newsom. “I requested his calendar prior to July,” Lanier told the Guardian. “A very simple e-mail request under the Sunshine act.”

Lanier says he has yet to receive an answer to his request, let alone any correspondence or acknowledgement from the Mayor’s Office that they’re working on it. Later, he had concerns about avian flu, where he was again rebuffed in his attempt to get documents.

THE PRICE OF DELAY

The frustrating stories of Crossman and Lanier eventually caught the interest of Christian Holmer, who championed their causes and set out with Crossman on a project they think could streamline the practice of releasing public documents.

Holmer is the secretary of the Panhandle Residents Organization Stanyan Fulton, which has a Web site compendium of all the Sunshine Ordinance requests he knows about. He posts a running countdown of how many days each request has been outstanding, as well as details on the runaround and excuses he receives from city officials.

His goal is to standardize how various departments produce documents and make them more easily accessible to the public “in as few keystrokes as possible,” as he puts it. And to do that, he’s made lots of Sunshine Ordinance requests, which MOC officials argue are too onerous for them to deal with, particularly given Holmer’s lengthy, heavily annotated e-mails, which he fires off to a variety of city departments on a daily basis.

As the many city reps who receive these e-mails will attest, it can take well over an hour to read the entire contents of one e-mail, only to find out it includes enough attachments to keep the reader busy for the better part of a day.

Petrucione and Ragone, who have received Holmer’s request for the mayor’s daily calendar but not yet answered it, cite the difficulty in figuring out exactly what Holmer wants. However, even the Guardian’s simply worded requests for that same information, as well as documents related to the recent health care measure, weren’t filled by the timelines set out by the ordinance.

Ragone says his office is just trying to keep up with the deluge of document requests. He raised the possibility of reforms, such as a designated Sunshine Ordinance officer or standardized form, but the MOC hasn’t formally proposed any.

Matt Dorsey of the City Attorney’s Office is wary of standardizing the system: “I don’t think the law should create a barrier — a ‘you didn’t sign this so I don’t have to answer it’ situation.”

Originally published August 1, 2006 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

Advertisements