By Richard Knee
DECEMBER 11,2014 — Katy Tang, the interim president of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, has been cited by the city’s transparency watchdog commission for tardy, incomplete delivery of some requested documents — and she could wind up in much hotter water if it turns out that she deleted or destroyed public records before state law allows.
It’s hard to imagine why Tang would delete documents that amounted to routine emails to and from her office. But she insists that the records don’t exist — and there’s clear evidence that they do.
The state Government Code makes it a felony punishable by one to three years in prison for public officials to delete or destroy records less than two years old. The city Administrative Code mandates that records be kept for at least five years, though it prescribes no penalty for a violation.
The problem came to light Dec. 3, when a representative from a journalists’ organization told the task force that some documents he had requested from Tang were missing from a 14-page stack that her office provided in response.
Thomas Peele, an investigative reporter for the Bay Area News Group who co-chairs the Freedom of Information Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter, said he had seen copies elsewhere of documents he had requested but not received from Tang.
He had sought copies of all communications mentioning the task force or nominees that Tang had sent or received between Nov. 1, 2013 and last 15, 2014.
Tang told the task force in a memorandum that she had provided Peele with all responsive records in her office, something her aide Dyanna Quizon reiterated during the task force’s hearing on Peele’s complaint.
But Peele said he knew of numerous documents that were not among those Tang provided. “She did not include an email from [Californians Aware director] Terry Francke endorsing Josh Wolf,” Peele told me. “She did not include an email from the Rules Committee clerk containing bios of the nominees to be considered on 5/15. She did not include an email from Wolf to her staffer, even though I asked for staff emails. I don’t know if I have everything. Her response was so poor, and the request covered six months, so it seems logical to think that other responsive records exist or existed.”
Peele’s rebuttal was not the only indication of missing records. Late during the hearing, Wolf showed his fellow task force members a copy of a note he had sent to Tang that was not among the documents provided to Peele. The note was about Wolf’s own candidacy for a task force seat.
Quizon said also that copies of all communications to and from Tang’s office were available in the office of the Board of Supervisors clerk. But Peele said Tang’s staff had not informed him of that fact.
We attempted to determine whether Tang or other supervisors routinely copy their records to the board clerk, and what if any retention, backup, storage and deletion/destruction policies are in place, but neither Tang nor the clerk’s office responded to our requests for comment.
It’s possible that Tang’s office somehow missed or lost the relevant documents – although other city officials manage to comply with far more extensive and complex requests. And it’s not clear what possible motivation she would have for destroying records that were simply part of routine correspondence.
Missing records aside, the task force found that Tang had twice violated the Sunshine Ordinance, the city’s voter-passed open-government law, in other ways, namely tardy and incomplete delivery of the records Peele had sought and failure to steer him to where he might find the absent documents.
Peele requested the documents May 15, 2014, immediately after the Rules Committee, on which Tang sits, stalled on eight of the 11 task force appointments, including those of the two applicants that the local SPJ chapter had nominated.
The committee conducts initial vetting of city board and commission applications.
The Sunshine Ordinance and the state Public Records Act normally give public agencies up to 10 days to respond to records requests, but the ordinance requires a response within one business day to any “Immediate Disclosure Request” (IDR) that is clearly and conspicuously labeled as such.
Peele faxed an IDR to Tang’s office late in the day on May 15 after the Rules Committee’s stall. Tang said in her memorandum to the task force that she did not respond to Peele’s request until May 20 because no one in her office had seen the fax before then. Task force members said that did not excuse her tardiness in delivering the documents.
It took pressure by SPJ NorCal, the League of Women Voters and citizen activists to get the Rules Committee and the board to move forward on the task force appointments in May and June. The league and New America Media, a group of minority-owned news outlets, each nominate one task force applicant, and their nominees were among those affected by the stall.
Some on the board, including then-president David Chiu, harbored a grudge since the task force found in September 2011 that he and Supervisors Eric Mar, Scott Wiener and Malia Cohen had violated open-meeting laws by ramrodding a Parkmerced residential redevelopment contract with 14 pages of amendments that Chiu had slipped in at the last minute.
Richard Knee is a San Francisco-based freelance journalist and sunshine activist.