Thursday, April 15, 2021
Uncategorized Sunshine advocates oppose "open government" measure

Sunshine advocates oppose “open government” measure

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Plan by David Lee draws fire from people who have spent their lives trying to improve public access to public meetings. 

48hillssunsmile

By Tim Redmond

AUGUST 19, 2015 – San Francisco politicians, and would-be politicians, have a history of creating ballot measures to promote their own careers. It’s a neat trick: You sponsor a measure and it gets your name out –and since there are no campaign-contribution limits on initiatives, you can raise all the cash you want.

Gavin Newsom, for example, ran for mayor in part on the back of a nasty anti-homeless measure called Care Not Cash. And now David Lee, the director of the Chinese American Voter Education Center and a teacher at SF State who is widely expected to run for supervisor from District One, has put together an open-government measure that’s on the November ballot as Prop. E.

Lee says he wrote the measure with his students. It reflects what some in the tech world have been pushing for – easier ways for people who don’t want to go to City Hall or wait with to testify with the rest of the unwashed plebians to influence decision-making.

There’s a populist nerve here that he’s trying to touch: It’s hard for working people, small business owners, and so many others who don’t have hours of free time to appear in front of the Planning Commission or the Board of Supervisors and be heard.

But in this case, many of the activists who wrote and promoted the city’s Sunshine Ordinance are opposing Lee’s measure, saying it’s an unworkable farce. In fact, there aren’t many people who have been active in open-government and ethics issues over the years lining up with Lee.

So the ballot handbook will reflect and interesting twist: People who have spent their careers pushing for reforms that allow more public influence at City Hall are opposing a measure that purports to open up government.

We are a contentious bunch in this city, and on major issues, all sides tend to organize and motivate large numbers of people to show up and speak for the allowable two minutes.

When it comes to land-use and planning issues, the law says you often can’t sue over issues that you didn’t raise in a public hearing.

All of which means that hearings can drag on for hours and hours.  People who want to testify have to sit and wait their turn. I get how imperfect democracy is; I sit there, too, and listen to it all, and it doesn’t always start or end when you want it to. I often say to myself: There has to be a better way.

Lee’s measure seeks to address those problems with modern technology. It mandates that all policy bodies in the city live-stream all meetings, which (other than the fairly modest cost) seems like a no-brainer. But it also allows people to submit online testimony during a public hearing and mandates that if enough people (50) sign a petition, an item has to be held at a “time certain.”

And while, again, that sounds just fine, sunshine advocates say there are serious problems with the plan.

For starters, there’s the very real prospect of well-heeled organizations hiring hundreds of people from around the country to submit online testimony on an issue. As a ballot argument by opponents notes:

By requiring all Boards and Commissions to take pre-recorded and live remote comment for every meeting, Proposition E exposes Boards and Commissions to influence by interest groups and individuals from across, and even outside, the country. The measure’s “privacy policy” shields lobbyists from identifying their clients or themselves as paid representatives. The voices of San Franciscans who provide public in-person comment will be deprioritized in favor of those outside San Francisco.

It’s signed by former Ethics Commissioners Eileen Hansen, Paul Melbostad, Bob Planthold, and Sharyn Saslafsy; Bruce B. Brugmann, former Bay Guardian publisher who was a principal author of the city’s Sunshine Ordinance (and my former boss); former Civil Grand Jury members Larry Bush and Hulda Garfolo; former Sunshine Ordinance Task Force member Richard Knee, and current Sunshine Ordinance Task Force member Lee Hepner.

 

In a letter sent to groups that are considering endorsing the proposal, those advocates note that

Requiring that boards and commissions take remote public comment would facilitate influence-peddling by persons and organizations across and even outside the country, thus diminishing the voice of local citizens and group representatives who physically attend meetings, often juggling family and/or work obligations to do so. Just as they pay citizens to circulate initiative, referendum and recall petitions and even to show up at the polls on Election Day, wealthy special interests could pay people under the table to spout their message or to filibuster – made easier to exercise and to hide by remote-comment media.

The time-certain provision, while attractive, actually runs afoul of the city’s longstanding rule that agendas for public hearings be posted 72 hours in advance. And it would create a potentially serious problem.

As Angela Cavillo, clerk of the Board, noted in comments to the Democratic County Central Committee:

“The proposed language in Proposition E Chapter 67.18 allows 50 individuals, at least 48 hours before the scheduled hearing, the opportunity to request a different start time for an agenda item.

“This is beyond the challenge of reposting the Agenda less than the venerable 72 hours, and more significant because the Clerk would have to grant (or deny) the time certain requests 24 hours before the start of the meeting which will not allow enough time for us to contact the individuals we provided the advance written notice, mailing, posting or publication to, and who may not look for a reposted Agenda, and may attend the hearing at the original noticed start time, only to come to find the reposted Agenda changed the start time to later that evening.”

The agendas of the full BOS and its committees, and of policy bodies like the Planning Commission, tend to be pretty packed. And nobody knows at the start how many people will want to testify on any item, or how many of the elected or appointed officials will have ideas, amendments, or debate.

Sometimes, the discussion on what might seem a routine item winds up taking a while; one of the supes sees a problem nobody thought of, and the City Attorney’ s Office or the budget analyst gets involved, and the matter winds up taking 45 minutes instead of five minutes.

That’s good; that’s how it’s supposed to work. The supes aren’t supposed to just rubber-stamp everything, quickly and efficiently, with no dissent; we tried that, when Willie Brown was mayor, and it wasn’t pretty.

But suppose there’s an item that starts at 2:30 and it turns out to be more complex than expected, and the debate goes on for half an hour, then there are amendments that are debated ….

But wait: Fifty people signed a petition, so there’s a “time certain” item at 3 pm. Do they cut off debate? Stop that item in the middle of discussion and shift to another one?

What if a committee or commission is in the middle of a public hearing on one item, and more people than expected showed up, and the members of the policy body have a lot of comments and questions … and then suddenly there’s a “time certain” item that people signed a petition for. Do all the folks who showed up and waited their turn to speak on the first item now have to take a seat and wait while another item takes precedence?

I understand the problem. But this doesn’t come from a grassroots constituency. It comes, I think, from the tech crowd that feels as if their time matters more than everyone else’s time, that sitting around in a crowded room and waiting their turn to speak is beneath them, that it would be much easier if everyone just did this all on a computer.

Or if we could all have a reservation for our issues, so we go first, as if this were all some fancy restaurant.

I have been a part of a long list of proposals to improve public access to government , and in many cases the existing elected officials were happy to speak about how expensive or unworkable those ideas were. In the end, they worked fine.

So again: I get the issue.

But in every case in the past, sunshine advocates have worked together. There’s a well-established group of credible and experienced people – not partisans, not politicians – who have spent many, many years on these issues.

David Lee contacted none of them. This is not a coalition effort.

So now we have this strange case where an open-government initiative is on the ballot and most of the veteran open-government advocates in town are opposing it.

I called Lee to talk to him about all of this. He answered the phone, and when I told him what I wanted to talk about, he instantly cut me off and said he would have to call me back.

He never did.

I suppose that says something about his real attitude toward openness and accountability.

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

28 COMMENTS

  1. Yeah. Count me amongst the “nice intent, flawed execution” crowd, but this knee-jerk tech-baiting is such a poison for the city’s political discourse. Way to go, Tim. Fan those flames.

  2. Some speakers at City Hall do announce their names, and state where they live. Many do not. There’s no rule about it.

    You do have to fill out a card to speak, but that is just so that they can call your name to speak. I am not aware of any requirement to use your full legal name, and it is fairly clear that there is no cross-checking.

    I get the argument about requiring some real world identification.. But there are also privacy issues around making such comments. For instance, I might not want my employer to be able to search the city meeting minutes to see what I have said.

  3. Oh, I did not know that. Can that be changed? But, in any case, I don’t know of too many people who stand up in meetings and spout off a false identity. Seems like standing up is a kind of public uncovering of self, so hard to pretend you are someone else. Commenting online, however, almost requires a pseudonym, because one is subject to so much distanced criticism, sometimes hate that is hard to deliver face to face, but that scares the recipient. That said, I still think online facilitated comment at public meetings should require verified identities, like a verified Twitter account attached to someone’s real name. I certainly would have no problem commenting as me on a public planning/zoning issue, etc. it seems very different from engaging on public forums like this one.

  4. But real names are not required now. Anyone can show up at City Hall and speak, without giving their name or by giving a fake name.

  5. Prop E sounds like it addresses a very real issue (individuals not willing to spend hours in public meetings during working hours) in a very flawed way (allowing anonymous or unverified comments via Internet and allowing commenters to set the time an item will be discussed). Let’s defeat this poorly conceived initiative and come back with a better one.

    For example, every remote comment to the public meeting at hand should be attached to a real person with his/her real name, address, and email address. If one is going to stand up at a public meeting or make a formal statement of interest via the Internet, then each such commenter has to give up a certain amount of privacy. And let’s let the meeting chair and fellow board members set the agenda and order ahead of time. The public gets input, but does not run the meeting!

  6. It’s as easy, or easier, to ignore an e-comment as it is to ignore someone ranting on for two minutes at city hall. Not having to sit through hours of oral comments would save time.

  7. It’s more that I think public comment in any form that favors the kind of people with nothing else to do than attend every city hall meeting is not only worthless, but misleading. The noisy usual suspects are idiosyncratically unrepresentative.

    Individual comments at public meetings are generally not helpful in determining which policies are popular with the silent majority of voters who do not actively participate in meetings, but who do decide elections.

    Put another way – meeting attendees are typically much more left-wing than the majority of voters.

  8. Disagree. The divisions of the real city – the Bay Area – into nine counties and dozens of cities – is artificial and leads to beggar-thy-neighbor policies.

    We need to open up the decision-making process to interested parties and stakeholders, and not engage in blinkered NIMBYism.

    I do not fear free speech and the input of others. Are you ideas so fragile and weak that you seek to censor?

  9. Anyone who lives in the Bay Area has a legitimate say in what happens at City Hall. SF is the downtown of a much larger urban area.

  10. You can always be relied upon to ignore the issue and instead hurl out personal attacks.

    And then you wonder why nobody listens to you.

  11. What compels you to erect absurd straw person parodies of other people’s post for the purposes of attacking? There is no proposal to restrict public comment at City Hall to residents.

    Non-residents should not be allowed, as the measure suggests, to have a voice in setting the order of the agenda for public meetings. No free speech violation there. Non-residents should be compelled to attend the public meeting and not be afforded the courtesy of remote participation on basic democratic principles.

    The rest of the region has plenty of space for urban infill growth to the densities of most of San Francisco. We should see an upzoning region wide before sacrificing San Francisco.

  12. Here’s a significant comment from a friend who is experienced with SF commissions. “Most Commissions have no staff, like the Animal Control and Welfare Commission that I chaired. There’s no staff to manage the online comments. That would mean that one Commissioner would have to stop paying attention to the discussion among Commissioners or to the in-person public comment being given, in order to manage the online comments. That might be do-able for the big Commissions, like Rec and Park or Planning, who have staff available to manage online comments. But for the little guys, which I think are the vast majority of Commissions, it will put a huge burden on the Commissioners.”

  13. I seriously doubt the progressives opposing E would have any issue with poorer ex-residents who got evicted and now live in the East Bay testifying at a council meeting, despite not being SF residents.

    (Of course, when Oakland residents who can’t afford to move to SF go to testify in favor of building more housing in the city, they’ll deem it an outrage, because those speakers are Not Even From Here.)

  14. While I agree this measure is problematic and I don’t think I’ll be voting for it, I must question the belief that only SF residents be allowed to testify at City Hall. That’s a basic violation of freedom of speech; but more importantly, people outside the city are affected by decisions made inside the city.

    Take housing and land use issues. Because SF refuses to allow dense development in over half the city, workers move East, creating tons of suburban sprawl in Alameda, Contra Costa, and Solano counties. That’s destroying ecosystems and conservation in these regions. Should a Sierra Club member from Fairfield be denied testimony on the devastating effects of SF NIMBYism on land use and conservation in Solano County simply because she is not an SF resident?

    If we are going to allow video testimony, it has to be available to everyone. Because that is not practical, though, I don’t think we necessarily should.

  15. The big decisions are made independently of public comment because the public comment at city hall meetings is massively skewed towards the “usual suspect” activists who have nothing else to do with their time than attend meetings trying to create the illusion that the people are much more progressive than they really are.

    I don’t enough about technology to know if this is the right solution, but anything that allows the silent majority to influence meetings, rather than the noisy minority, is a step in the right direction

  16. This measure has good intent but bad execution. Holding meetings in the evening would exclude families, seniors and people with disabilities. Most agendas are crafted so the most important items/items of most interest to the public are heard first anyway. And this call in business? Board/Commission support staff have their hands full during a meeting and now they’re going to answer the phone? If the staff has received 50 comment cards before that person calls in, the standard is “first come/first served” so the caller would sit on hold for 100-150 minutes? That’s not going to happen and it’s unfair to the staffer. There are ways to get testimony to the policy body before the meeting. In fact, it’s better so there’s time to think about the comment rather than at the meeting. Yes, these meetings should be televised but the rest of the stuff in this legislation wasn’t well thought out. I’ll vote no

  17. The article mislabels Bruce B. Brugmann as “principal author” of the Sunshine Ordinance. The original language of the ordinance was drafted by Terry Francke, then executive director of the (then-California) First Amendment Coalition. and it remains a template for similar ordinances in cities and counties up and down the state.

    Brugmann shepherded the ordinance through City Hall, where it was predictably watered down, in 1993, and he and the Bay Guardian were the driving force behind the voter-passed initiative (Prop. G, November 1999) that gave us most of the current ordinance.

    Francke is now chief counsel of Californians Aware, and he and that organization support Prop. E, though opponents (including yours truly) are trying to persuade them to reconsider their endoresement.

  18. Unfortunately, there are constitutional problems with limiting access to the public process.

    I would love to participate remotely, it sure would beat camping out in that building with those people–the raging indignation of the lazy in the face of deterioration of progressive politics as well as the hyper economics is making me one hell of a misanthrope these days–but it has to be done with care and consideration, to be well thought out, not used as a ballot measure trampoline for a subsequent election.

    I called the EFF dude Dave and his response was “any technology in government is good” because the people who participate now are limited.

    No, and yes. Perhaps government meetings in the evening times when folks are not working would ease particiipation.

    But we all know that nothing of substance is decided due to the content of public comment, all of the big decisions are made before the meeting is called to order.

  19. My thoughts exactly. This is an enabling act for internet trolls to extend their destructiveness to real spaces.

  20. “… the usual suspect losers and whiners who show up for almost everything.”

    $am, you are showing your ugly side again.

  21. It would be awesome for San Franciscans to be able to participate in public comment without having to camp out at City Hall.

    But with no residency restrictions on who can request agenda items to be reordered, with no residency restrictions on who can participate remotely in public comment, this measure would basically transform public comment into the SFGate comment section or, even worse, the 48hills comment section.

    If you hate San Franciscans and want to empower the Koch brothers’ network to gum up San Francisco’s public process, then vote for this measure.

  22. “It comes, I think, from the tech crowd that feels as if their time matters more than everyone else’s time”

    WTF does this even mean? Are software engineers somehow the only people capable of using a camera to deliver testimony? Or are you just trying to lazily smear the measure with some kind of … techie-ness?

    I’m actually on the fence on this one, but most of your argument seems to be based on a weird case of “Not Invented Here” syndrome. That doesn’t convince me at all.

  23. Open government is a myth. Many of the meetings at City Hall take place during the day, which means that normal productive people cannot attend and instead the chamber is packed with the usual suspect losers and whiners who show up for almost everything.

    Even if the meeting is in the evening, that rules out people with families so, again, it is the more abnormal elements who show up.

    Moreover the average city meeting goes on for hours but the real business doesn’t take that long. Most of the time is the Supes eye-rolling while an endless barrage of mind-numbingly tedious whiners have their two minutes of mock relevance.

    Anything that fixes the dog and pony show is an improvement, and we all know that the silent majority are not politically active, but should have the real power

Comments are closed.

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