Sunshine eclipsed

Supervisors reject Sunshine Ordinance Task Force members for stealthy political reasons

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PHOTO BY SAWYER STEELE

As an advocate for the passage of the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance in the early 1990s, I felt obligated to take my first and only City Hall position and serve as a founding member of the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force. I served for l0 years and helped with many other good members to build the task force into a strong and respected agency for helping citizens get access to records and meetings and hold city officials accountable for suppressing access and information.

The task force is the first and best local sunshine task force of its kind in the country, if not the world. It is the only place where citizens can file an access complaint without an attorney or a fee and force a city official, including the mayor, to come before the task force for questioning and a ruling on whether they had violated sunshine laws. The task force lacked enforcement powers, but it still annoyed city officials, including Mayor Willie Brown.

In fact, Brown spent a good deal of time trying to kick me off the task force. He used one jolly maneuver after another, even getting an agent to make a phony complaint against me for violating the ordinance with an email (The complaint went nowhere). I refused to budge and decided to stay on until Brown left office—on the principle that neither the mayor nor anybody else from City Hall could arbitrarily kick members off the task force.

That principle held until about 3pm last Thursday (May 17) at the meeting of the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee to appoint candidates to the task force. At that meeting, without proper notice, advance warning, explanation, apology, or even a nice word or two, the supervisors suddenly turned a normal drowsy committee meeting into an unprecedented bloodbath for the task force and its independence. Sup. Mark Farrell played the heavy, Jane Kim was the facilitating chair, and David Campos was the reluctant third party, working together to bring Willie Brownism back at the task force with a vengeance.

The committee rejected four qualified candidates from three organizations who are mandated by the Sunshine Ordinance to choose representatives for the task force because of the organizations' special open government credentials. (Doug Comstock, editor of the West of Twin Peaks Observer; Attorney Ben Rosenfeld from the Northern California chapter of Society of Professional Journalists, sponsor of the ordinance; Allyson Washburn from the League of Women Voters and Suzanne Manneh from America New Media.)

The committee without blushing asked the organizations to come up with a "list of names," a whiff of grapeshot aimed at members and organizations who had served the public well for years. Who wants to go before the supervisors on a list of names for a bout of public character assassination? Meanwhile, while knocking off the qualified, knowledgeable candidates, the committee approved four neophytes without experience and then unanimously appointed David Pilpel, a former task force member known for delaying meetings with bursts of nitpicking. He almost always comes down on the side of City Hall and against citizens with their complaints.

Farrell also tried to bounce Bruce Wolfe, an excellent member, but Kim and Campos supported him and his name was sent on to the full board for approval.

Then, when Wolfe's name got to the board on May 22, it was a repeat of Willie Brownism and this time to the max. Sup. Scott Wiener moved to amend the motion and substituted Todd David. Farrell seconded. The vote was 6-5, meaning that Willie Brownism wiped the sunshine slate clean of anybody who would raise a pesky question of city officials and the City Attorney's Office.