By Tyler Breisacher
Changes to government transparency rules, brought on by the COVID-19 crisis, have raised concerns from advocates and journalists in San Francisco.
The San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance, passed in 1999 by the Board of Supervisors, and later strengthened by the voters, gives San Franciscans transparency into the inner workings of City agencies. But some crucial sections have been suspended by Mayor London Breed in the last several weeks, in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
The first came on March 13, with the suspension of the “Immediate Disclosure Request” rule, requiring public agencies to produce relevant records within less than two business days, if requests are “simple, routine or otherwise readily answerable.” With that rule being suspended, another section of the Sunshine Ordinance would apply, requiring the agency to produce the records “as soon as possible and within ten days following receipt of a request.”
However, that section was also suspended, in a supplement order issued March 23, leaving only the requirements from California’s Public Records Act, which gives agencies much longer to respond.
Some City agencies have been slower to respond: the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing cited Breed’s proclamation in its response to a records request from the San Francisco Public Press.
However, even when there are no delays, the suspensions may alter the way reporters seek out information. Mission Local Managing Editor Joe Eskenazi said he had not had any public records requests delayed or denied, but that he is “less likely to pursue stories that lean upon timely record requests now. I have filed some, but, for me, the suspensions are less about a tangible denial and more about a diversion from even pursuing some stories I’d otherwise take up.”
He added, “Of course, due to the pandemic, I’m less likely to pursue garden-variety corruption and politics and San Francisco business-as-usual stories anyway.”
A letter from several advocacy groups, including the First Amendment Coalition and the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, denounced the suspensions. “Initiatives like the Sunshine Ordinance are not a right the government has granted to the people, but a power that the people have reserved for themselves,” the letter said.
It also highlighted two other suspensions in the March 23 supplement. One of these suspensions allows agencies to withhold documents exchanged during contract negotiations, and the other allows them to deny public records requests using a “catch-all” exemption from state law which would normally be forbidden by the Sunshine Ordinance.
Christine Peek, co-chair of the Freedom of Information Committee of SPJ NorCal, said the mayor is allowed to issue orders in emergency situations when necessary to preserve life or property. However, she said, “Not only is it unnecessary to suspend citizens’ rights to open government in order to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, there are strong policy reasons not to do so, including the critical role these open government rights play in preserving our democracy, and the need to preserve trust in local government during this difficult time.”
Another aspect of government transparency is public access to meetings. A series of executive orders from Governor Gavin Newsom updated California’s rules for public meetings of legislative bodies, known as the Brown Act. To adapt to the statewide shelter-in-place order, legislative bodies may now hold meetings using video-conferencing software such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, rather than in a public place within the body’s area of jurisdiction.
Many Bay Area legislative bodies have adapted well. In a webinar presented by the First Amendment Coalition and Society of Professional Journalists, Berkeleyside reporter Emilie Raguso described Berkeley’s City Council meetings over the first several weeks of the shelter-in-place order. After a few initial technical difficulties, their meetings are now running smoothly on Zoom, with multiple ways for the public to observe and participate.
However, several council members were participating with audio only, until Raguso raised the issue during a public comment portion of a meeting. She argued that if an official has access to a camera, they should generally have it turned on during an online meeting.
The City College Board of Trustees has held several meetings on Zoom, simultaneously streamed on YouTube for people who can’t or don’t want to use Zoom. Unlike the Berkeley meetings or the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, members of the public cannot call in to address the board.
Instead, they are asked to email their comments to email@example.com, often with a deadline of half an hour before the start of the meeting. Those emailed comments are then read by a college official, rather than people getting to address the board directly. Furthermore, those comments have been difficult to hear, at several meetings, making the experience quite different from that of an in-person meeting.
For the Town Hall at 6 p.m. on April 7, for instance, only comments submitted before 5:30 p.m. were accepted. Documents obtained by The Guardsman show that a handful of comments were submitted too late and were not read during the meeting. One comment, accusing the Board of acting “without transparency,” was submitted at 5:31 p.m., just one minute too late.
SF Weekly estimates that one in eight San Franciscans does not have internet access. One such resident is Peter Warfield, from Equity for Older Students. While he is able to listen in to meetings over the phone, the lack of internet access at home, and inability to get into public libraries which are closed during the shelter-in-place, makes it difficult for him to engage with online meetings as much as he did for meetings held in person.
Online meetings can lead to other challenges as well. In an example of what has become known as “Zoombombing,” a meeting of the Participatory Governance Council’s Facilities Committee on May 4 was disrupted. One attendee described the Zoombombers writing on the screen using Zoom’s “annotate” feature, and playing loud electronic music, forcing the committee to end the meeting and reschedule it for the next day.