S.F. voters close to approval of revised sunshine ordinance

Thursday, November 4, 1999

With 90% of the ballots counted, San Francisco voters appear to have approved a measure that would require better public access to government meetings and records and would allow the city's Ethics Commission to suspend or fire employees who don't comply.

Although election officials haven't finished counting votes in the city's Nov. 2 election, the latest count shows 76,060 votes, or about 58%, for Proposition G and 55,181 votes or 42% against.

Officials say vote-counting has progressed slowly because of a heavy write-in turnout for one mayoral candidate — Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano. Votes for 90% of precincts had been tallied by this morning.

“It really makes San Francisco the sunniest city in the world,” said Bruce Brugman, publisher of the alternative San Francisco Bay Guardian weekly. “It shows you can fight City Hall and win on open government.”

As written, the initiative amends a sunshine ordinance the city's Board of Supervisors adopted in 1993. Although that law was designed to enable residents to view public records, attend meetings and examine budgets, open-government advocates say it didn't provide recourse if city officials refused to comply.

“One of the reasons the laws have been violated is because there is no enforcement mechanism in place and there are no penalties for violators,” said Richard Knee of the Society of Professional Journalists and a member of the San Franciscans for Sunshine Coalition. “There have been countless situations where a record is obviously open to the public, but a clerk arbitrarily says, 'No,' and goes about his day.”

But a key part of the measure allows citizens to appeal the closing of a record or meeting to the city or district attorney. The current law and the state's sunshine statutes require individuals seeking access to file a lawsuit, which can be time-consuming and costly for both the citizen and the city.

Proposition G also creates penalties for government employees who ignore the measure and allows the city's Ethics Commission to suspend or fire such employees.

“Proposition G's success is the result of a lot of hard work by a lot of people,” Knee said. “The mainstream media has characterized this as the Bay Guardian's initiative. They don't characterize this as a very broad-based coalition, which it is.”

Besides SPJ, Knee noted that many members of the Board of Supervisors openly endorsed the measure as well as many other current and former city officials. None of the supervisors opposing the measure returned a call to the board's office this morning.

While Ammiano's write-in candidacy delayed the vote tally, Knee said, “It's likely …that (his) 11th-hour entry of the mayor's race increased the turnout at the polls and helped tip the scales for Prop. G. Ammiano backs it, and it's likely that most of his supporters do.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.