Guild works to oppose measure that could endanger City Hall transparency

By Richard Knee
Guild Vice President, California

On a motion by Guild First Vice President Gloria La Riva, the San Francisco Labor Council’s Committee on Political Education voted 58-21 to oppose San Francisco Proposition B, a measure on this November’s ballot that would, among other things, empower the Board of Supervisors to tamper with the city’s Sunshine Ordinance, the nation’s strongest local government transparency law, which the voters passed in 1999.

The Guild Executive Committee, acting on the unanimous recommendation of the Legislative and Political Committee (La Riva, Paul Burton and this writer, who is chair), voted in early August to oppose the measure.

Dubbed Privacy First, Proposition B is purportedly aimed at preventing city contractors and business licensees from passing customers’ personal data to utilities, internet service providers, social media and their like.

But Guild leaders and others who see public access to government meetings and records as paramount in importance call the provision authorizing the city to amend the Sunshine Ordinance a deal-killer. The Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter, and the citizen activists group San Franciscans for Sunshine also oppose the measure. (Disclosure: This writer is long active in those and other sunshine-advocacy organizations.)

Perhaps equally telling is that on the stump and in print, Proposition B’s proponents mention the board-empowerment provision little or not at all. They know that San Francisco voters like government transparency. That might also be the reason they stuck the provision almost at the end of the measure’s text, in Subsection (i).

Proposition B would set guidelines for drafting personal-data privacy laws by next May 31. Sup. Aaron Peskin is its chief sponsor. Co-sponsors are Sups. Sandra Lee Fewer, Jane Kim, Hillary Ronen and Norman Yee.

Peskin and his legislative aide Lee Hepner failed in meetings with sunshine advocates this summer to assuage concerns about the board-empowerment provision. Peskin and Hepner argued that the board could only strengthen the Sunshine Ordinance if Proposition B passes.

But the word “strengthen” does not appear in Subsection (i). The provision states that the board may amend voter-enacted privacy, open-meeting and public-record laws in ways “not inconsistent” with their intent or purpose. Determining whether amendments meet that criterion would be a subjective exercise and the job would rest with the city attorney – whom sunshine advocates see as conflicted because that official is charged with defending accused sunshine scofflaws.

Peskin and Hepner noted also that the board could strengthen the ordinances more quickly and easily than the voters could. But that argument carries an assumption that the mayor would sign such legislation – something certainly not guaranteed in the case of current Mayor London Breed, whose words and actions have clearly shown a strong dislike of sunshine.

Furthermore, a board with an anti-sunshine majority could just as easily weaken the ordinance; for example, it could revamp the composition of the city’s open-government watchdog commission, the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, in order to stack it with members inclined to let violators skate.

Personal-data protection is a laudable idea but Proposition B offers no guarantees; it merely establishes guidelines for drafting a set of ordinances. And we can only guess what kinds of compromises the board and Breed would make behind closed doors with tech-industry lobbyists.

What Guild leaders see as most important to our members is that Subsection (i) would endanger government transparency, it is locked into Proposition B, and those facts make the measure unacceptable.

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Pacific Media Workers Guild

We are the Pacific Media Workers Guild, Local 39521 of The Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America. We represent more than 1,200 journalists and other media workers, interpreters, translators, union staffs and freelancers.