By Richard Knee, who represented SPJ's Northern California Chapter in San Franciscans for Sunshine, a grassroots coalition that successfully pushed for sunshine reforms affecting San Francisco City Hall.
Frustrated for six years as city officials and employees repeatedly flouted San Francisco's Sunshine Ordinance, a grassroots coalition that included SPJ's Northern California Chapter persuaded voters to enact a reform package that will increase access to City Hall meetings and records.
NorCal SPJ chapter leaders -- especially the Freedom of Information Committee headed by Bruce B. Brugmann, editor/publisher of the San Francisco Bay Guardian -- perceived for many years that California's open-meetings and public-records-access laws, while well intended, were being routinely violated by San Francisco city officials. Brugmann got Terry Francke, general counsel of the California First Amendment Coalition, to draft a Sunshine Ordinance for San Francisco in 1993. Brugmann, who became the chapter's president that July, shepherded the ordinance through City Hall; it was enacted that October and became effective the following January.
It wasn't a perfect bill; Brugmann had to make some concessions to get the city supervisors and the mayor to sign off on it. Still, it comprised the strongest sunshine laws in the country at the time.
But the backroom dealings continued; if anything, they became more frequent and egregious after Willie L. Brown Jr., a former speaker of the state Assembly, unseated Frank Jordan as mayor in 1995.
That prompted Brugmann and myriad other FOI advocates to band together in 1998 to seek reforms to the Sunshine Ordinance. The group drafted a measure to strengthen the ordinance but could not persuade the supervisors to put it on that November's ballot. The board has 11 members; only four of their signatures were needed for ballot placement; and only one gave his.
The sunshine advocates then organized formally; their group, San Franciscans for Sunshine, went directly to the voters and obtained more than enough valid signatures to place the initiative on the November 1999 ballot. It passed, 58-42, despite fierce opposition from Brown and other influential politicians, big business and even the San Francisco Chronicle.
The initiative's key features include:
Administrative appeals to the city attorney when citizens are denied public-records access.
Penalties, ranging from reprimand to dismissal, for city department heads and employees who willfully withhold public records.-- A requirement that the mayor and department heads make their appointment schedules public.
Mandatory taping of policy-making and advisory bodies' executive sessions.
Mandatory 10 years' storage of records of policy-making and advisory bodies' meetings.
A requirement that meeting agendas and minutes be kept current on the city's Web site.
A requirement that each city department develop and maintain a records index.
Assignment of a full-time staff aide and allocation of adequate resources to the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, the all-volunteer advisory body responsible for implementing the sunshine laws.
A requirement that bids and counter-offers for sole-source contracts be made public.
Increased public-notice time between the completion of city contract negotiations, such as with utility companies and labor unions, and final approval of contracts by the Board of Supervisors and the mayor.
IT ISN'T EASY
Anyone considering an effort to get sunshine laws enacted needs to be aware: It isn't likely to be easy. A lot of people worked very, very hard to get San Francisco's initiative on the ballot and then to persuade voters to pass it. It took immeasurable time, brainstorming and energy. Yes, it took a bit of money -- more than $92,000, including about $74,000 in non-monetary contributions. With the benefit of hindsight, would we do it again? In a second!
What you'll need to do:
Learn what state, county/regional and/or local sunshine laws already exist.
Find out how well or poorly those laws are being observed. Newspaper archives are probably full of stories of sunshine law violations. Also, ask several departments at the government you're thinking of targeting for some records that should be public, and find out how much cooperation or resistance you get; note how much you're charged for retrieval and copying of any documents. Attend meetings of that government's policy-making and advisory bodies to see how closely they follow open-meetings laws. And learn where and with whom the politicians and bureaucrats spend their time outside normal business hours.
If you learn that sunshine laws need strengthening, or that they don't exist, and you want to remedy the situation, there are some route choices. In San Francisco, for instance, the original Sunshine Ordinance was passed by the Board of Supervisors. But that was an anomaly; probably, you'll have to put the issue on the ballot.
First, get organized. Find out who's with you (and who's against you). Learn what special knowledge, experience, talents and resources the groups and individuals joining your effort can contribute. Form a steering committee and elect officers -- at least a chairperson or co-chairpersons and a treasurer. Form committees for drafting the initiative, publicity/public relations, research, budgeting, fund-raising, signature-gathering and running a phone bank. Get the most knowledgeable and articulate among you to participate in a speakers' bureau.
Pick your election date (even-numbered years, when there are presidential or gubernatorial races and voter turnout is likely to be relatively high, are best), and find out from the elections department or registrar of voters what deadlines you must meet. They'll include submitting the initiative, turning in enough valid signatures, and submitting arguments/rebuttals to be printed in the voters' information pamphlet. And there may be prescribed forms and formats for all of these.
Send out mailers and hold events -- parties, receptions, benefit performances -- to raise funds.
Prepare flyers explaining why the sunshine laws or reforms are necessary, rebutting opponents’ arguments, and listing the individuals and groups active in your campaign. Go after newspapers' endorsements (but don't assume that's a slam-dunk). Submit op-ed pieces.
Take your case to political groups, neighborhood associations, business organizations, civic groups, unions (you'll get lots of invitations, but seek them out as well). Have people who can speak to news media and on talk shows. Be prepared to field tough questions and to rebut what your opponents say.
If your initiative passes, watch city officials closely to make sure they implement it properly. And be prepared for a legal challenge from opponents.
San Franciscans for Sunshine
Co-chair Ross Mirkarimi, email@example.com, RBMIR@aol.com
Co-chair Jeff Sheehy, (415) 643-5211, firstname.lastname@example.org
Co-drafter Thomas Burke, (415) 276-6552, email@example.com
Co-drafter Stephen J. LeBlanc, office (415) 248-5512, home (510) 893-3128, firstname.lastname@example.org
Web site www.sunshinesf.com carries the text of the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance Amendment.
California First Amendment Coalition
Counsel Terry Francke, email@example.com
Web site www.cfac.org
San Francisco Bay Guardian
Web site www.sfbg.com carries the text of the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance Amendment and weekly updates of the initiative campaign.
About the Author
The author of the above article, Richard Knee, represented SPJ's Northern California Chapter in San Franciscans for Sunshine, a grassroots coalition that successfully pushed for sunshine reforms affecting San Francisco City Hall.