Open-government coalition urges San Franciscans to let sunshine in

Wednesday, October 27, 1999

When the San Francisco Board of Supervisors last spring recommended that city officials award Intelitran a $66 million contract to provide taxi and van rides for 13,000 disabled residents, a group of political activists cried, “Foul.”

The group, saying that two other companies offered better, cheaper proposals, asked officials to explain why they preferred Intelitran's offer. But they said officials refused to release score sheets and other documentation.

“Department heads and personnel cannot just at will withhold public records from people who ask to see public records,” said Richard Knee, a member of San Franciscans for Sunshine Coalition. “But it happens all of the time. People are flatly denied access to public records.”

While the transportation bid remains unsettled, the coalition managed to gather enough signatures to put another issue on the table: Proposition G, nicknamed the Sunshine Initiative. With more than 12,000 valid signatures, Proposition G qualified to be placed on the ballot for the city's Nov. 2 election.

If passed, the initiative would amend the city's existing sunshine ordinance, which some say does an inadequate job of opening city records and meetings to the public.

Approved by the Board of Supervisors in 1993, the ordinance was designed to ensure residents that they could view public records, attend meetings and examine budgets. But open-government advocates say the law fell flat because it didn't provide recourse if an official refused to turn over a record or a local board declined to open its meeting.

“The problem is that the current sunshine ordinance has no teeth,” Knee said. “There are no penalties for violating the current ordinance. This initiative would establish penalties and establish procedures for going after violators.”

But opponents to Proposition G say the initiative isn't necessary because the present ordinance stands as one of the strongest in the country.

And instead of improving government access, critics charge, the initiative would create more bureaucracy and place an undue burden on city employees to meet demands of those asking for records.

City Comptroller Ed Harrington said the measure — which, in part, would require the city to create and maintain an index of records available for public review – would strain the city's budget with a one-time implementation cost of $321,000 and an annual recurring cost of about $419,000.

The San Francisco Chronicle, in a recent editorial, agreed, saying that the initiative would “disrupt city business to an unreasonable degree.”

Opponents to Proposition G also say the new measure would drastically cut into the privacy rights of residents and crime victims because records of a sensitive nature would suddenly become open.

But Knee calls those complaints “a lot of smokescreen opposition.”

He said Proposition G, if passed, would not supersede state and federal open-access laws, which, in part, allow government boards to meet privately to discuss the “good name and character” of employees or to confer with attorneys on very specific legal matters.

The initiative itself, he noted, states that law enforcement can withhold the names of juvenile witnesses and confidential sources and certain personal information if disclosure constitutes an invasion of privacy.

As for cost estimates, Knee says Harrington's figures overstate the costs by not including computer technology already in place and indirect savings that may be accomplished through citizen oversight.

“Another way to look at it, is that the $419,000 is less than 1/100 percent of the city's $4.2 billion budget,” Knee said. “From a practical standpoint, the increased ability of scrutiny will make it easier for citizens and journalists to spot potential waste of taxpayer dollars.”