Judges Give an Opaque Reading to S.F. Sunshine Ordinance

Thursday, November 13, 2014

San Francisco’s 1999 Sunshine Ordinance, reportedly the nation’s oldest municipal law on government transparency, is enforced by the city’s Ethics Commission.

On Wednesday, the California Supreme Court unanimously declined to review a lower-court ruling that the ordinance’s broad requirements of public disclosure don’t apply to the Ethics Commission itself when it is consulting with the city attorney’s office. Ironically, the decision revolved around the commission’s refusal in 2012 to reveal 24 memos between it and the city attorney’s office over proposed Sunshine Ordinance regulations.

Public-records activist Allen Grossman sought the memos and Superior Court Judge Ernest Goldsmith agreed that he should have them. However, the state First District Court of Appeal reversed the decision (pdf) in July and the high court concurred.

The appellate court acknowledged the sweeping language of the ordinance, which opens to the public city dealings, including most meetings, documents and other records. But it said the law was trumped by the San Francisco city charter, which recognizes the attorney-client privilege as pre-eminent by inference.

Written communication between them is “fundamental to the attorney-client relationship, in the public sector as well as the private sector,” the court wrote. Judge Goldsmith had ruled the question involving the charter was “not properly before the court” and ignored it.

The court case unfolded against a backdrop of ongoing rancor going back years between public-records activists and city officials. Task force members and municipal watchdogs regularly complained that the Ethics Commission refused to act on specific issues it brought before them. Bruce B. Brugmann, founder of the San Francisco Bay Guardian and an original member of the task force, referred to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors as the “anti-Sunshine gang.”

Arguments over the role of the Ethics Commission, appointments to the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force―the citizens panel empowered as watchdogs by the ordinance―and the disposition of complaints they deal with boiled over in 2011.

A unanimous finding by the task force in September of that year that Board President David Chiu and three supervisors broke local and state open meeting laws by pushing through a redevelopment contract for Park Merced with critical, unread amendments at the last minute seemed to rankle City Hall.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Court Upholds Confidentiality of S.F. Sunshine Ordinance Records (by Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle)

Supervisors Play Politics with Sunshine Appointments (by Steven T. Jones and Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, San Francisco Bay Guardian)

The Anti-Sunshine Gang Intensifies Its Attacks on the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force in City Hall (by Bruce B. Brugmann, San Francisco Bay Guardian)

John St. Croix v. Allen Grossman (California First District Court of Appeal) (pdf)

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