Why does the OES fear KGO-TV?
The controversy over obtaining copies of San Francisco’s disaster plans
By Amanda Witherell
KGO-TV news reporter Dan Noyes and producer Beth Rimbey have been trying for the last 15 months to acquire copies of San Francisco’s disaster plans from the Office of Emergency Services. Despite firm deadlines set by the city’s Sunshine Ordinance and public promises made by Mayor Gavin Newsom and OES chief Annemarie Conroy, not all of the requested documents have been released.
In fact, OES officials won’t even talk to KGO anymore.
“We’re only allowed to speak to the Mayor’s Office,” Rimbey said at a Sept. 26 Sunshine Ordinance Task Force hearing on the issue. “We’re not allowed to speak to OES. They won’t take our phone calls. They won’t do interviews.”
KGO’s complaints were heard by the task force members but not by OES officials: they failed to send a representative to the meeting because they say they feel threatened by Noyes, according to Jennifer Petrucione of the Mayor’s Office of Communications, who was in attendance.
“Frankly, I think that’s a very specious argument for not coming to address the complaint,” said task force member Rick Knee, citing the open forum of the meeting, public setting, and security of City Hall. “I don’t see that as a valid excuse for not attending.”
“With all due respect, I disagree,” Petrucione responded. According to her, staffers from the OES — the agency charged with responding to terrorist attacks and natural disasters — feel threatened and have filed complaints with the Department of Human Resources, citing a work environment made hostile by Noyes.
“The only thing that could be viewed as hostile was asking them questions they weren’t comfortable answering,” Kevin Keeshan, vice president of KGO, told the Guardian. He said all the incidents of concern were documented on videotape, which he reviewed and invited the complaining parties to watch. He saw no violations and has heard nothing further from the city on the issue.
He, Noyes, and Rimbey haven’t heard anything about the city’s plan in the event of an earthquake or a terrorist attack either. Rimbey said she thinks there is no plan and the city has been stalling until there is one. “It’s frightening. There are people who are deeply disturbed about emergencies in the city,” she said.
Officials have said plans are under internal review and being updated and will be turned over to the media as soon as possible. Over the past few months, KGO has received some copies of disaster plans, but they either appear to be 10 to 15 years old and adorned with new covers or are so heavily redacted that they’re just black pages, according to Noyes.
A prior task force hearing ruled that information had been unnecessarily redacted from several plans. The task force asked the Mayor’s Office to review the documents with a mind toward more openness. Petrucione said it followed new guidelines recommended by the City Attorney’s Office during a long and laborious process spanning several weeks. Those six documents were released Sept. 22 with many redactions still in place.
“I have a lot of problems with the redactions that were made,” said task force member Erica Craven.
Another member, David Pilpel, cited his personal favorite: the name of former governor Pete Wilson, which Pilpel was able to deduce from a subsequent page where it hadn’t been redacted.
“Why redact at all?” asked Noyes at the meeting. “Look at San Jose’s plan. It’s online for everyone to see,” he said. The city of San Jose makes the case that the first responders to an emergency are the citizens, who must be informed. Therefore, its entire emergency plan is posted on the Web.
The task force ruled that the OES was in violation and member Marjorie Ann Williams took a moment to say her concern went beyond the office’s withholding of documents. “This is a very, very serious issue,” she said about the city not having a plan. “We need to get on this and take it to heart.”
The Mayor’s Office and the OES were given five days to release all the documents, although the SOTR has little ability to enforce its rulings. As of Oct. 2, KGO had received nothing. In June, the Guardian made a similar request for documents and has also received nothing. The OES did not return repeated phone calls for comment on this story.