Consequences of inaction

How the breakdown in sunshine enforcement leads officials to destroy public documents and defy unwelcome inquiries

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George Wooding found some emails that Rec-Park said didn't exist

news@sfbg.com

The San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance, although it sounds bright and cheery, remains shrouded in a cloud of inaction. Meant to increase transparency in city government, it hasn't emerged from the bureaucratic fog since its establishment in 1994. Cases wait years to be heard and even blatant violations go unpunished, due to infighting and power disputes between the commissions that are supposed to enforce government compliance.

The Sunshine Ordinance outlines citizen's rights to request document and information. Citizens can take their complaints about request denials to the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, an 11-member committee appointed by the Board of Supervisors to ensure government compliance. If the task force decides a violation has occurred the case is handed over to the Ethics Commission, a five-member appointed board that will supposedly enforce the rulings with fines or ordering documents to be made public.

George Wooding, reporter for the Westside Observer and president of the West of Twin Peaks Central Council, is the complainant in one of the task force's most recent cases. This spring Wooding requested emails from the Recreation and Park Department multiple times but was told the documents did not exist. What RPD didn't know was that Wooding had the emails all along.

The task force unanimously found RPD guilty of withholding emails. This is the third major sunshine violation by RPD in three years. Even more surprising, not one RPD employee has been fined, suspended, or faced any kind of punishment or corrective action.

The episode is a case study in the total eclipse of sunshine enforcement in the city, and how one embattled department — the RPD, which has come under heavy scrutiny for efforts to monetize park resources (see "Parks Inc.", July 12) — used that dysfunction to stifle dissent.

 

DILUTING DISSENT

George Wooding v. RPD began when Wooding was asked to be a panelist at a Commonwealth Club event on May 11. The event, titled "Golden Gate Park Under Siege," was to be a discussion about possible development projects in the park. Other panelists were representatives of environmental and anti-development groups who claimed they were not given time to voice their concerns in Board of Supervisors meetings, and wanted a forum to do so.

Wooding says that the Commonwealth Club was bombarded with phone calls and emails weeks before the discussion.

"They were saying our panel was one-sided, which is really unusual, and the Commonwealth Club told us they were getting a lot of heat for such a little panel discussion," Wooding said. "It was not going to be a big deal, in all honesty."

The emails that Wooding had and the department denied include correspondence from Sarah Ballard, RPD's director of policy and public affairs, to Kerry Curtis, co-chair of the Commonwealth Club Environment & Natural Resources Forum, indicating she had phoned the club as well and asked that the discussion be canceled due to its "deeply biased panel that has no interest in discussing facts."

There are also emails between Susan Hirsch, director of the City Fields Foundation, a private group that has been installing artificial turf in public parks, from her business email address to the panel moderator Jim Chappell's private email, urging him to reconsider the event.

"You and I discussed this project years ago; the private sector is contributing far more than $20 million to provide safe, accessibly, and yes, environmentally sound fields for kids all across San Francisco to use. We have a unique private/public partnership with Rec and Park; it's too bad the focus is on something negative, rather than the positive impact," Hirsch wrote.

Comments

Great reporting on a very serious issue. Democracy can't occur when officials are corrupt and refuse to work with the public who pays their salaries. Thank god George Wooding put the pieces together and is willing to do the heavy lifting to sound the bell.
Rec and Park is being grossly mismanaged by Phil Ginsburg, an atty. with no park experience. He's Newsom's long time bud and Newsom gifted him with the Rec & Park Directorship for which he gets at least $250k/yr + benefits. Ginsburg is all politics all the time. He gives lip service to working with communities, preferring to answer the calls of the really high rollers like the Fisher (Gap) family, Gettys, Susie Tompkins Buell and her husband, Mark Buell (part of the Commonwealth Club scandal above).
Ginsburg is being protected by Dennis Herrera and Mayor Ed Lee who are also Newsom/Brown puppets. So far Jeff Adachi and Terry Baum have promised to fire Ginsburg and clean up Rec & Park... can't wait.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 21, 2011 @ 12:41 pm

And put an end to the privatization of our public property.
It's a start.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 22, 2011 @ 7:42 am

Ms. Ballard has shown herself to be totally without credibility, hard to imagine for a Rec Park Spokesperson. "I have nothing" was her response on May 11th to a Sunshine request for e-mails concerning the Commonwealth Club panel. This denial came three weeks after she sent an e-mail to Ross Lawley from sb@sfgov.org and another to Kerry Curtis, (CC Member) trying to kill the panel.

What is going on in McLaren Lodge and why are these folks still taken seriously?

Posted by Guest on Sep. 21, 2011 @ 9:58 pm

This is an excellent article.

There is more to this story than a failure to enforce records retention policies. Here we have a situation in which high level city employees and an appointed President of a City Commission attempted to use their position to prevent the public assembly and free speech of concerned citizens on a matter of public policy. Did these public officials feel that this meeting would endanger public safety? If not, what possible reason could be important enough to abridge free speech?

According to RPD's Director of Policy and Public Affairs, this was a "deeply biased panel with no interest in discussing facts". Who were these disruptive outside agitators? Well, as a matter of fact, the panel included the President of the Western Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Conservation Director of the Bay Area Audubon Society, the interim Director of SF Beautiful and past Executive Director of SPUR, and the President of the West of Twin Peaks Council. I doubt that any of these worthies planned on bringing molotov cocktails to the meeting.

Is this an isolated instance of an effort to suppress free speech by City officials, or is it part of a pattern? Were these e-mails and phone calls the independent actions of a highly placed City employee, a Commission President, and the Director of the City Fields Foundation (a member of a public-private partnership with the Recreation and Park Department) , or was this a coordinated effort by the City to squelch public discussion? Is it simply a coincidence that all of the relevant emails have been erased? Why isn't the Ethics Commission as well as other law enforcement officers interested in what may have been an official coordinated action to suppress free speech in San Francisco?

Finally, the Commonwealth Club deserves the public's thanks for not bending to pressure and for allowing the meeting to be held.

Posted by An Advocate of Free Speech on Sep. 22, 2011 @ 10:22 am

Readers may decide for themselves about the Commonwealth Club panel. To view the video of this discussion, go to our website:

http://home.earthlink.net/~sfoceanedge/id68.html

Posted by SF Ocean Edge on Sep. 22, 2011 @ 12:47 pm

Readers may decide for themselves about the Commonwealth Club panel discussion. For a link to our video, please go to our website: www.sfoceanedge.org

Posted by SF Ocean Edge on Sep. 22, 2011 @ 12:50 pm

A few evenings ago I attended a meeting at a rec center in the Richmond in which about twelve mayoral candidates gave their views on several issues. One issue was Rec and Parks proposal to extend the existing soccer fields in GG Park behind the Beach Chalet, astro-turf them, and light them up with 60-foot-high floodlights until 10:00 PM every night of the year. Eleven of the candidates were absolutely opposed to it. The twelfth was so slippery, I couldn't tell you whether he was for or against if my life depended on it.

Afterward I heard overheard people. One said, It's encouraging to hear all this opposition from the politicos. But at the risk of bursting the happy bubble, even if God the Father and the whole Western World were opposed to something, if Mr Ginzburg and his friends in the "private sector wanted it, it would happen anyway. And people around the speaker nodded their heads.

Now I don't know if this accusation is valid. But even this perception of the head of our Rec and Park Dept is terrible! How did such a perception come about? Did it appear out of thin air? Do such lousy reputations simply blew in and take root, like wind-blown seeds?

Just a question...

Posted by Guest SF Resident on Sep. 23, 2011 @ 7:38 pm

Ginsburg is indeed terrible and should be fired without hesitation, but he wouldn't be able to get away with all the crap he pulls if it weren't for the fact that the Rec and Park Commission itself rubber stamps nearly everything staff hands to them.

The next mayor needs to throw out both Ginsburg and the entire commission and start from scratch.

And we organizers and citizens need to change the appointments system of that commission to give the Board at least half of the appointments.

Posted by Eric Brooks on Sep. 23, 2011 @ 7:57 pm

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