By Richard Knee
June 19, 2012
In moving to push Bruce Wolfe off the city’s Sunshine Ordinance Task Force on May 22, Supervisor Scott Wiener attacked the 11-member body in a way that was venomous and mendacious.
From the board dais, Wiener labeled the task force as anti-sunshine, accusing us of responding to an “audit” by saying, “How dare you?”
In making that statement, he lied. Twice.
First, there was no audit. An audit consists of a thorough examination of an entity’s operations and their net cost or benefit, including how much funding the entity receives during a given time span, how much it spends and the uses of those expenditures. No such report exists.
Second, neither the task force nor any member of it uttered the phrase “How dare you?”
The task force did, however, issue a strong statement objecting to (a) the surreptitious manner in which Wiener asked the Budget and Legislative Analyst to “survey” all city departments on how much it costs them to comply with sunshine (i.e. open-meeting and public-records) laws and on how many hours their personnel spend at task force meetings as respondents to complaints brought by members of the public; and (b) the survey itself, which we thought was vague and inconclusive.
What prompted the survey? Wiener said he had received complaints that the task force’s complaint-handling process was costing lots of overtime and keeping city personnel in City Hall late into the night.
It is true that task force meetings are often long. But that is not because the task force operates inefficiently. It is because our agendas often include upward of 10 complaints and we are duty-bound to give each a fair hearing, weighing the evidence that both sides provide in determining which, if any, provisions of local or state sunshine laws have been violated.
In addition, we get lots of public comment on virtually every matter that comes before us. A good deal of that public comment is, in fact, extremely helpful to us. But at times it stretches our meetings significantly.
Also important is that the number of complaints that the task force hears is only about a fourth or a third of those that our office receives; in most cases, our administrator is able to bring the two sides together.
Furthermore, while city personnel get overtime for attending task force meetings, task force members receive neither remuneration nor expense reimbursement for their service, which often requires juggling meeting schedules with family and job commitments.
Why does the task force receive so many complaints? There are a couple of plausible explanations. Ray Hartz Jr., a citizen watchdog of City Hall, told us recently that the task force’s copious workload stems from growing public awareness of the sunshine laws and of the task force’s role in upholding people’s sunshine-related rights.
If that’s true – and I like to believe it is – Hartz and a handful of others who regularly speak at task force meetings deserve a lot of the credit for it.
At the same time, there’s another, darker factor: the task force has no authority to impose penalties on sunshine scofflaws, and the entities that have that power have never used it. So the word has spread within City Hall that one can violate the Sunshine Ordinance and skate on it.
I’m not saying that every city department, agency, board, commission etc. thumbs its nose at the letter or the spirit of open government; many, maybe most, people in City Hall agree that it’s an essential component of democracy and do their utmost to further it. But there are enough perceived and actual violations to keep the task force plenty busy.
Finally, among the conclusions that the Budget and Legislative Analyst drew from the survey are the following:
• Compliance with state and local sunshine laws carried “identified” costs of about $4.27 million to the city in calendar 2011, of which nearly $3.28 million stemmed from adhering to state laws. So the Sunshine Ordinance added $997,676 to the cost of compliance.
Since San Francisco’s population is a bit over 805,000 the latter cost figure works out to about $1.24 per resident per year. I’d say that’s an excellent bargain.
What’s more, $4.27 million represents slightly more than 0.6 percent of the city’s $6.83 billion budget for fiscal 2011-12.
• “[I]t is likely that without the (task force), some portion of complaints would be directed to other public bodies, such as the courts, which would in turn incur costs.”
In other words, the task force, ponderous though its processes and procedures might seem, has saved the city untold hundreds of thousands of dollars in court expenses. And there’s no telling how many millions of dollars the local and state sunshine laws have saved the city by enabling the exposure or prevention of backroom deals.
By the way, an audit of the task force’s operations is a laudable idea. Supervisor Wiener or any other city official would serve the city well by initiating it.
Supervisor Wiener would also serve the city well by recanting his slander of the task force.
Next: how the Board of Supervisors’ purge of Sunshine Ordinance Task Force incumbents was an exercise in hypocrisy.