By Doug Porter
Sunshine Week is not another tourism promotion for San Diego. It’s about open government. The public’s right to know. And if there’s one place in the country that could use more of this type of sunshine, it’s San Diego.
America’s Finest City, as boosters are wont to call it, has a sordid history of corrupt mayors, underhanded deals blessed by city hall, and failed civic leadership. As in past decades, local apologists would like to have us believe this is all old news or, at worst, ending with the removal of the most recent ex-Mayor-who-can-not-be-named.
Today we’ll take a look at recent events connected with more open governance on the local scene, or at least the illusion thereof. Yesterday (Tuesday, March 18th) included two seemingly contradictory events that speak to the popular notion of keeping the activities of government accessible to those of us who ultimately pay for it.
Mayor Kevin Faulconer officially killed a proposed policy of deleting all city emails more than a year old yesterday.
In a statement, Faulconer said his action is “just one of the first steps” in his mission to increase openness and transparency at City Hall.
“I reviewed the policy and believe the public’s right to have access to City documents is worth the additional financial cost that will come with retaining these emails,” he said. “In today’s modern age, I believe San Diego can be a leader in using technology to increase transparency.”
The original policy, which was outlined in an internal memo sent by interim Mayor Todd Gloria, created a furor among journalists and open government advocates.
Council members Marti Emerald and David Alvarez, along with Donna Frye (now President of Californians Aware) held a press conference yesterday announcing support for a November 2014 ballot measure that would amend the City Charter to include expansion of Open Government policies.
That initiative might seem a bit redundant or unnecessary, given the mayor’s proclamation, until you look at the active role the current City Attorney has played in seeking to deflect, delay or defer legal and legislative efforts to open up government to public scrutiny. Two previous attempts at getting open government measures before the public–despite near unanimous council support– have gone nowhere in the face of objections raised by CA Jan Goldsmith.
The difference between a proclamation and actual law lies in the ability of the current or future mayors to alter, modify or simply rescind an announced policy. And there’s always the fine print, as in whether or not emails and social media transmissions about official business made on private accounts by elected officials are part of the public right to know.
Todd Gloria’s Private Email Battle
As reported by Dorian Hargrove at the San Diego Reader, City Council president Todd Gloria appears to be on the losing end of a battle to keep city-related text messages and emails from his private email account out of a court battle.
Via the Reader:
In a March 14 tentative ruling, superior-court judge Joel Wohlfeil ordered Gloria to begin compiling any text messages he sent during council hearings as well as any emails from his private account that contain discussions related to city business. He may be forced to turn over those messages if the judge rules they are a matter of public record and should be open for inspection…
…The tentative ruling is seen as a potential victory for open-government advocates who worry that more and more public officials are hiding their tracks through the use of their private electronic devices.
The ruling is part of a case brought forward by Cory Briggs, attorney for San Diegans for Open Government, amid allegations that Gloria was communicating with applicants and other members of the public during hearings.
Jan Goldsmith’s Private Email Case
City Attorney Jan Goldsmith is also being sued by Cory Briggs for refusing to release emails from a private email address that discuss city business. Should the ultimately court rule against Gloria, Goldsmith’s case could also be jeopardized.
It would seem that some citizens are more equal than others when it comes to who gets to see that emails. Goldsmith has also been named in a lawsuit for releasing closed-session transcripts to the U-T San Diego during his feud with former mayor Bob Filner while refusing to release other closed-session transcripts to other members of the media.
From another Hargrove story at the Reader:
According to Briggs’s complaint, looking to resolve the issue, the city attorney has agreed to personally respond to what he referred to as “gadflies” who submit requests for the private exchanges.
“Goldsmith and some of the other elected officials have actually agreed explicitly that the City Attorney’s Office would respond to certain undesirables or gadflies trying to gain disclosure of personal email communications dealing with official city business…. Goldsmith reportedly told one of his elected colleagues in the context of limiting access to personal email communications: ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine,’” reads a portion of the complaint.
Goldsmith has not only openly admitted to using his personal account but his office has also released some of these emails in prior requests.
And finally (Hargrove again, God bless him):
San Diego’s city attorney Jan Goldsmith is above the law — California’s public records law, that is, says a February 27 legal briefing filed in San Diego Superior Court.
According to attorneys for Goldsmith, public officials such as the city attorney are not subject to California’s Public Records Act. The law, reads the brief, requires only “local agencies,” a “city,” or a “municipal corporation” to turn over documents, not individuals, officials, or employees.
So my reading on this is, regardless of the mayor’s proclamation, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith intends to keep his business out of the public eye.
Whether it’s about criminal/political conspiracies or simply a case of Cover Your Ass, we shouldn’t have to depend on the shoeshine boys for the local ruling class posing as journalists to find out what’s going on. Our tax dollars and our votes should make us entitled to the truth about government employees do during the course of their employment. The exceptions to disclosure need to be rare and unusual, not part of some sort of ‘privilege.’
The Big Deal About Sunshine Week
City Councilman David Alvarez explained the importance of Sunshine Week in a UT-San Diego op-ed:
As stated in the preamble to the Brown Act, our state’s open government law: “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”
In the last few weeks, the city of San Diego has experienced two major failures in providing the public with open and transparent government.
After discussing the collapse of the 2015 Balboa Park effort and iMayor Todd Gloria’s now-discarded email deletion proposal, he went on to make the larger point:
Sunshine Week 2014 runs from March 16 through March 22 and is a “national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.” While an annual discussion helps highlight these issues, the public deserves open government every day. They have a right to know what their government is doing, a right to be heard and the right of access to government information.
For more information about Sunshine Week, go here.
iNewsource vs the North County Transit District
The City of San Diego is hardly alone in its need for a little more sunshine of the disinfecting persuasion. Consider the case of the North County Transit District (NCTD), which has been fighting a pitched battle with iNewsource and KPBS for many months now.
NCTD CEO Matthew Tucker claims that negative stories about his agency are the result of former employees and a reporter (or two) with an axe to grind. It was my first-hand impression at a recent forum staged by the San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists that he ‘doth protest too much.’
The transit district relies on funding from San Diego County. And now they’re getting sued in Superior Court to compel the release of documents inewsource considers public under the California Public Records Act. One thing’s for sure, if these documents say what inewsource thinks they say, the party’s over at NCTD.
From the press release announcing the court filing:
inewsource is seeking the results of a leadership assessment, which the district paid UCSD Rady School of Management more than $30,000 to conduct earlier this year.
NCTD runs the county’s COASTER, BREEZE, SPRINTER and LIFT transit services, and uses San Diego county’s tax base to support its operations. For the past 13 months, inewsource has published a series of stories in an ongoing investigation detailing the district’s holes in security,misallocation of funding, questionable contracting, highemployee turnover, lawsuits, audits and peer criticism.
In February, inewsource received a phone call from a source who said NCTD had recently completed a “Leadership Assessment Program” for some of its staff. inewsource verified the information through documents showing NCTD paid $31,200 to put more than a dozen of its senior managers through a one-day class at the Rady School. The school compiled a report for NCTD, detailing the strengths and weaknesses of each manager.
The source said the results of the study validated the previous inewsource reporting about NCTD’s “vacuum” of knowledge — the result of a high turnover rate among upper management and an alleged culture of intimidation inside the agency. According to multiple sources, this vacuum is to blame for much of the NCTD’s recent safety, compliance, budgetary and operational deficiencies.
On This Day: 1831 – The first bank robbery in the US was reported. The City Bank of New York City lost $245,000 in the robbery. 1917 – The Supreme Court upheld the Adamson Act that made the eight-hour workday for railroads constitutional. 1980 – The autopsy of Elvis Presley was subpoenaed in the “Dr. Nick” drug case. “Dr. Nick” was Dr. George Nichopoulous who was Presley’s personal physician.
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Will Falk says
“the local ruling class posing as journalists”
Poetry, Doug. Poetry.
thanks again for great writing.
Brent Beltran says
“Whether it’s about criminal/political conspiracies or simply a case of Cover Your Ass, we shouldn’t have to depend on the shoeshine boys for the local ruling class posing as journalists to find out what’s going on.”
Indeed Doug, indeed.