The politicos will always find a means to conjure their way through the loopholes, but that doesn't mean that journalists and voters can't chase them. Here are some of the bloodhound tricks I've learned -- both in my own pursuits of information and from watching citizens in action. If these techniques seem optimistic and even cheerful, it's because underneath the cynicism that befalls all of us politics-watchers there remains a confidence that people in the system and people who approach the system can and do get things done that benefit the city.
San Francisco's Sunshine Ordinance is one of the best friends of the citizen.
Want a document, or even correspondence written by or sent to the mayor, a member of the Board of Supervisors, or other city official, say, perhaps, the letters between Frank Jordan and Pete Wilson? All you need do is write that city official and ask for what you want to see. Make sure to write "Immediate Disclosure Request" in big letters at the top of your letter and on the outside of the envelope. If the document exists, and isn't part of a contract still being negotiated or a confidential personnel matter, you'll get access to it by the close of the business day following the receipt of your letter.
The Sunshine Ordinance provides citizens with rare access and rare timeliness and has opened up government. Unfortunately, few citizens or even activists have made much use of it.
This legislation could still be improved. There are no penalties for failing to adhere to its requirements, and the only sure way to force the public official's hand is to secure a court order. Nor is there a requirement (as there is in the federal Freedom of Information Act) for the city official to list categories of documents that you aren't getting, so you never know what is missing.
Those defects ought to be corrected, but nevertheless, this legislation -- first introduced by then-Supervisor Roberta Achtenberg and finally passed by Supervisor Kevin Shelley with unanimous board approval and Mayor Frank Jordan's signature -- is a testament to San Francisco's belief in open government and citizen access.
You can have advance agendas of any city meeting mailed to you.
The Board of Supervisors' agendas, commission agendas, special meeting notices -- all of it can be sent to you on a regular basis to your home at no cost to you. If you have a special interest in the Police Commission, write to them and ask to be on the commission mailing list. The same goes for Planning, or Health, or any other city commission or board committee.
Curious about a board vote that didn't appear in the newspaper? Call the recorded number for the clerk of the Board (554-5555) for the complete results.
Political campaign contribution and expense information is available for the cost of a computer disk.
Thanks to another political reform spearheaded by Achtenberg, all candidate campaign filings and all committees that raise or spend $5,000 or more during a reporting period must file by computer.
You can copy the data onto your disk at the Registrar of Voters -- reimburse them for a new disk, and they'll do it for you. You can request these reports in a variety of data-base formats, which means that you can sort information the way you want to know it. Want to know which consultant was paid the most by the highest number of candidates and committees? Sort by expenditures under category "P" for professional services. Want to know which category of contributors ranked highest -- such as realtors or retirees? Sort by contributor occupation category.
This past Monday was the deadline for sending in the first half-year reports; by the time this column appears, all the reports should be available at the Registrar's Office (633 Folsom).
Computerized filings will soon be available through the public libraries and via modem directly to your home, but in the meantime you don't have to depend on the newspaper to tell you which candidates got the most money from voters, unions, or corporations.
You can find out who's paying whom to lobby on what issues.
The footprint of lobbyists is felt not only in City Hall, but in the neighborhoods, and thanks to the disclosure requirements, it's an open secret when lobbyists' moves are under way. Informed citizens will always use disclosure to determine when the lobbyists are huffing their hot breath on the Board of Supervisors, but citizens should also avail themselves of the disclosure laws to track which lobbyists are pushing rezoning, special permits, or other changes in a neighborhood. Often, lobbyist disclosure is the first place information is made public about a major construction project that is about to leap off the drawing board. For example, if neighborhood activists had consulted the disclosure forms, they could have learned that McDonald's was going to seek permits for a new building at Van Ness that included a drive-through before the burger chain formally applied. If you suspect development in your neighborhood but aren't sure, call the S.F. Ethics Commission at 554-6464 and ask if any lobbyist has reported work for a client at that address.
You can find out who paid for all those "citizen" ballot arguments in the Registrar of Voters Voter Handbook.
Each election, the Registrar of Voters mails a Voter Handbook to every registered voter, naming the candidates and ballot measures for the upcoming Election Day. The rules don't allow citizens to place paid arguments for or against a candidate (can you imagine what that might look like?), but the rules permit paid ballot arguments on ballot measures: In this official document you often encounter pages of arguments -- attributed to citizens -- lecturing voters on the issues. Unless you recognize the names alongside the arguments, you can't know if it's a genuine sentiment or a sponsored one.
The Registrar of Voters office keeps a list of who paid for each ballot argument -- and often a copy of the canceled check. As a longtime advocate of the "follow-the-money" school of journalism, I've learned that very few people pay for the ballot arguments over their names; the person or committee or corporation that really cares usually pays for the ballot argument.
If you care, show up or send a letter.
Journalists write about closed-door deals because the deals exist and we think you ought to know. Unfortunately, our vigilance has made too many citizens cynical about the political process. I apologize on behalf of all of us because, in fact, most of the action takes place in the open where everyone can have his say.
If you address a letter to the board, a copy will be sent to each board member. My guess is that a majority of the supervisors actually read these letters, even if they are not personally addressed to them.
If you write to the mayor, or a commission, your letter is entered into an information file (and made available for public inspection).
Go to a commission meeting and testify on something you care about. You're not always going to get what you ask for, but there is no doubt whatsoever that public testimony matters.
I'm sorry if that sounds trite, but I've worked in a mayor's office, I've been a pesky reporter watching things, and I've been an activist. I know that it matters if you call or write a letter -- even if someone is brusque or rude to you.
City officials are as human as any of us.
At frustrating moments, I've compared our job as reporters to that of movie reviewers, giving readers a critique of how actors perform their roles, but avoiding giving a precis of the plot. We tell you who's the villain in this particular movie, who gets the girl (or guy, or both), and whether any of them are believable.
Life is not really like the movies. Reporters have a few sentences to paint a broad picture of an event or person, and readers come to think that this picture is the person.
But few people are villains -- or heroes -- all the time. Most officials try to do a good job, and are honest about it. Many appointed commissioners, who appear to have gotten their gig as a "reward" for political contributions, are working long hours for no pay. Unquestionably, the hardest slots to work are on the Police Commission, the Board of Permit Appeals, and the Planning Commission. There's little glory in sitting at your kitchen table reading through a 5-inch stack of documents before the next commission meeting -- every week.
This is simply meant to be a reminder that civility is never out of place, no matter how deeply one feels about an issue or how wrong you believe someone else to be. Act as though your mother were at your side, and you probably won't go wrong.
I've enjoyed having this space for the past four months, and in particular have been grateful for the interest of so many readers. I have now accepted a position at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but I'm sure that our trails will cross again at some point in the future. Thanks for reading me.