Deleting accountability

Deleting accountability

Sunshine Ordinance Task Force says Newsom’s destroying public records

By Amanda Witherell

Public records are coming in pretty handy these days. Congress is using them to investigate the relationship between the Republican National Committee and the firing of eight attorneys general, and as with many investigations that use documents to uncover malfeasance, some key documents are missing — in this case Karl Rove e-mails.

It seems Mayor Gavin Newsom’s office also has a penchant for the delete key, according to findings of the city’s Sunshine Ordinance Task Force. Two complaints brought by citizens have been heard by the task force regarding how the mayor’s daily calendar is kept — or isn’t kept — and what happened to e-mails that disappeared after they were requested by a member of the public.

“We found there was willful and ongoing violations and destruction of records,” task force chair Doug Comstock told the Guardian.

Staff in the Mayor’s Office say they didn’t do anything wrong and no willful destruction of public records has occurred. According to Joe Arellano of the Mayor’s Office of Communications, the e-mails — invitations sent out for the mayor’s Jan. 13 District 1 community policy forum — were purged because they were temporary.

“We have such a huge e-mail system, we have to delete e-mails that are transitory. These, to us, were the same kind of e-mails,” Arellano said.

The case is on hold awaiting further information regarding the city’s capability to retrieve purged electronic documents and will be heard again by the task force. But the larger issue is whether Newsom is intentionally keeping his calendar a secret, in violation of city law.

The Mayor’s Office only makes public Newsom’s so-called Prop. G calendar, named for a 1999 ballot measure expanding the Sunshine Ordinance and explicitly making the mayor’s schedule a public record. It’s a stripped-down version of his list of appointments, often with only a couple events per day.

The Mayor’s Office has argued that Newsom’s complete calendar can’t be made public, citing security and privacy concerns. The task force disagrees and contends it’s a document that should be public, with redactions of security and privacy information as needed.

The Mayor’s Office disagrees. “The sunshine task force is wrong, and we are right,” Newsom press secretary Nathan Ballard said. “The calendar we give to the public and press exceeds Prop. G.”

Arellano, in a letter to the task force, described the other document as a “working calendar that is extremely detailed and accounts for his time from departure from home until his return in the evening. The working calendar contains not only the Mayor’s meeting schedule, but also confidential information such as the officers assigned to protect him, security contact numbers, the Mayor’s private schedule, details of his travel,” and everything else that he’s doing.

“What they refuse to realize is they’re both public documents,” Comstock said about the dual calendars.

Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition (CFAC), agrees that both calendars are public if they contain information about what the mayor’s doing with his city time.

“If they have security concerns, they can withhold particular items that would jeopardize the mayor’s security. There are certain things we can all agree on that can be withheld, certain driving routes and evasive strategies for emergency planning. But when the vehicle stops and he gets out for a meeting at an office, home, or place of business, that item has to be revealed,” Scheer said. “If we’re talking about a calendar, there may be thousands of items, and only a handful may be subject to redaction. They can’t use the few to justify nondisclosure of the many.”

But that’s precisely what the Mayor’s Office is doing.

The mayor, city attorney, and all department heads are required by Prop. G to reveal “the time and place of each meeting or event attended.” The only exclusions may be “of purely personal or social events at which no city business is discussed and that do not take place at City Offices or at the offices or residences of people who do substantial business with or are otherwise substantially financially affected by actions of the city.”

Therefore, a Prop. G calendar should contain everything a city official does every day in the course of working for the public. When asked if all the blank spaces on the Prop. G calendar represent personal time, Ballard said, “It could be personal. It could be other. It’s not anything we’re required to divulge under Prop. G.”

But just because it should be there doesn’t mean it is. For example, the mayor’s calendar for the afternoon of April 19 shows him attending a library luncheon at 12:30 p.m., a phone interview at 2:30 p.m., and a 4 p.m. meeting with his chief of staff, followed by a Port Commission swearing in.

But we ran into Newsom coming out of a 2 p.m. Recreation and Park Commission meeting, where he spoke in support of more public art in the city. This event is not listed on his calendar. Ballard said the Prop. G calendar is sometimes amended to reflect changes. “I don’t have an android following him at all times. We’re just human beings working here.”

“If he indeed was there, I will try to remedy that,” Ballard added.

This scenario suggests other public business is also not being adequately tracked and Newsom’s real calendar could fill in the gaps, but the mayor’s computer software is set to automatically delete the working calendar after five days, destroying a record of what the mayor actually did.

Aside from any prurient interest in what the mayor is up to, an accurate record of events is a part of public accountability. Newsom’s calendar for the week of April 16 lists 31 meetings and events amounting to 25 1/2 hours at work. The city attorney’s Prop. G calendar is even more paltry. Between April 23 and 27, Dennis Herrera apparently attended 13 meetings and spent 11 1/2 hours working for the city.

Calendars are important public documents, Scheer says. “Most importantly, they give an insight into who has access to that public official.” But, he says, “it’s only as revealing as it is complete.”

Scheer and the CFAC are currently involved in a court case with San Bernardino County. The San Bernardino Sun sued the county for access to supervisors’ e-mails, memos, and calendars for a period of time last summer during a large fire that destroyed houses. Bill Postmus, the chair of the board of supervisors, appeared to be AWOL during the emergency, and reporters at the Sun sought relevant documents that might support Postmus’s claim that he was in contact with his staff at the time.

A judge ordered the records released, with redactions, and most officials have complied, except Postmus, who has convinced the county to hire outside counsel and appeal.

Back in San Francisco, the Mayor’s Office doesn’t seem to be sweating much about the next legal action regarding its records management. The task force does not have the power to levy fines or punishment, so the calendar case has been referred to the Ethics Commission, the district attorney, and the attorney general.

“We will be vindicated by the Ethics Commission,” Ballard said. “The Ethics Commission will side with us.”

Originally published May 9, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian