Our chapters throughout the country do amazing work to keep government open. Here is a great example, directly in the words of Richard Knee, SPJ NorCal Freedom of Information Committee:
SPJ’s Northern California Chapter has for the second time this year advanced freedom of information in San Francisco, convincing a transparency watchdog commission that a member of the Board of Supervisors twice violated the city’s 1999, voter-passed Sunshine Ordinance through tardy, incomplete delivery of requested public documents to a co-chair of SPJ NorCal’s Freedom of Information Committee.
The panel, called the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, found on Dec. 3 that Supervisor Katy Tang had responded late to Thomas Peele’s request for all documents and communications mentioning the task force and nominees thereto that she or her staff had sent or received between Nov. 1, 2013, and last May 15. The ordinance stipulates that the task force’s 11 voting members are to include an attorney and a journalist nominated by SPJ.
Peele, an investigative reporter for the Bay Area News Group, shares the FOI Committee helm with Geoffrey W. King, an attorney with the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The task force pinned an additional violation finding on Tang after seeing evidence that some of the requested communications were missing from the 14 pages of documents that her office had provided to Peele. In fact, there was some indication that Tang or her staff might have deleted or destroyed some communications earlier than city and state sunshine laws allow, a criminal offense that could land her in jail for up to three years. The task force planned to investigate that aspect further and could send the matter to the district attorney for possible prosecution.
City and state laws normally give public agencies up to 10 days to respond to records requests, but the San Francisco ordinance requires a response within one business day to any “Immediate Disclosure Request” (IDR) that is clearly labeled as such.
Peele faxed an IDR to Tang’s office late in the day last May 15 after the board’s Rules Committee, which vets city board and commission applicants, had stalled on appointments to the SPJ-nominated and several other task force seats. Tang, who sits on the committee, told the task force in a memorandum that she did not respond to Peele’s request until May 20 because no one in her office had seen the fax until that day. Task force members said that did not excuse her tardiness.
The episode could gain extra visibility because Tang’s colleagues elected her in late November as interim board president through year end. She represents a square-shaped district midway along the city’s Pacific shoreline.
Pressure by SPJ NorCal and citizen activists played a major role in getting the Rules Committee and the board to move forward on the task force appointments in May and June. The SPJ-nominated task force members are Mark Rumold, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and freelance reporter Ali Winston.
Some on the board, including then-president David Chiu, harbored a grudge since the task force found in September 2011 that he and three other supervisors had violated open-meeting laws by ramrodding a residential redevelopment contract with 14 pages of amendments slipped in at the last minute. Chiu was elected in November to the state Assembly and will leave the board at year end.