Monthly Archives: March 2009

Freshman's Bills Would Connect Lobbying Dots

 PUBLIC INFORMATION — Assemblywoman Alyson Huber (D-El Dorado Hills), has introduced two bills she says would increase public access to campaign finance and lobbying records, reports the Stockton Record. One of the freshman lawmaker's bills, AB 1274, would require the California secretary of state to do a better job of linking reported lobbying activities to specific legislation. Detailed lobbying information, while already public record, is "not organized in a way that the average citizen can figure out the information they really want to know," Huber said. "If you want to find out who is spending money to influence a piece of legislation," she said, "you have to compile it yourself." Huber's other bill, AB 1181, would force anyone who files campaign finance disclosure forms to do so on the Internet. Most do, but some are exempt. Neither bill would change basic reporting requirements or deadlines. Under her proposed lobbying bill, state officials would be required periodically to publish an online list of lobbyists who fought for or against the same bills.

House Passes Shield for Journalists' Sources

FREE PRESS — A federal shield bill that would give reporters a qualified privilege to refuse to identify their confidential sources was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives tonight, reports Larry Margasak for the Associated Press. The House bill allows a court to compel a journalist to reveal confidential sources in these circumstances: To prevent an act of terrorism against the United States or its allies, prevent significant harm to national security or to identify a perpetrator of a terrorist act. To stop an imminent death or significant bodily harm. To identify someone who disclosed a trade secret, health information on individuals, or financial information that is confidential under federal laws. To identify, in a criminal investigation, someone who disclosed properly classified information that caused or will cause significant harm to national security. Even if those requirements are met, the party seeking information must establish that the public interest in compelling disclosure outweighs the public interest in gathering or disseminating information.

S.F. City Attorney Has Stimulus Oversight Panel

OPEN GOVERNMENT — San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera has announced the appointment of a City Attorney's Stimulus Spending Task Force "to coordinate legal compliance by city departments, and guarantee maximum transparency, efficiency and accountability for city investments made possible by the federal government's recently enacted $787 billion economic stimulus package."  The Task Force is meant to combine the office's expertise and experience in such areas contracts and grants; Sunshine and open government; construction and public works; land use and environment; federal funds compliance; and fraud investigations and litigation.  It's been charged with scrutinizing the entire lifecycle of projects funded by federal stimulus monies—from grant applications, through federal audit processes, to final "deliverables."  The following are Herrera's appointees to the City Attorney's Stimulus Spending Task Force: * Deputy City Attorney Robert Maerz leads Herrera's Airport Team, where he serves as general counsel to San Francisco International Airport, a public enterprise with annual revenue in excess of $650 million.  Maerz will chair Herrera's task force.  An acknowledged expert in public contracting, procurement, and regulatory matters, Maerz played a key role in successfully concluding Herrera's fraud litigation against Tutor-Saliba Corp., which the City settled in 2006 for $19 million.* Deputy City Attorney Sheryl Bregman serves on Herrera's Construction Team, where she provides transactional advice on public works, including professional design and construction procurement, contracts, and prevailing wage enforcement claims.  Since joining the office in 1995, she has represented the City in numerous litigation and administrative hearing matters, and has drafted legislation governing public works contracting, false claims and contractor debarment. * Deputy City Attorney Ronald Flynn serves on Herrera's Complex and Special Litigation Team.  An experienced trial lawyer who has overseen complex litigation matters in federal and […]

Transparent Lobbying: Will California Follow Feds?

OPEN GOVERNMENT — The Sacramento Bee carried a revealing examination Sunday of the relationship between big political donations by highly organized lobbying groups in Sacramento and—let's call it insurance.  Not so much advancing as shielding one's interests from reform efforts. As Shane Goldmacher reports, "Special interests spent a record $553 million lobbying California state government in the past two years. For them, it was money well spent." Makers of chemical fire- retardants poured in more than $9 million to kill a ban on fire-proofing chemicals in furniture that consumer groups say cause cancer. The Morongo Band of Mission Indians used $4.39 million to muscle through a gambling deal to let the tribe add thousands of lucrative new slot machines to its casino. The oil industry spent more than $10.5 million to influence the Legislature and state agencies. A 2007 industry association report touted that even in a Democratic-controlled Legislature, "of the 52 bills identified as priorities (in 2007), only three that we opposed were approved by the Legislature." Of those three, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed two. A Bee analysis of this past two-year session found the 10 highest-spending employers of private lobbyists shelled out a total of more than $70 million working the halls of state government. They rarely lost. Newspapers are able to trace these patterns because of records kept public by law.  But the Obama Administration is hoping to enforce a more ambitious approach to transparency: requiring lobbyists to spell out what they want from the federal government—at least in the stimulus package—on the record.  As noted in an AP report, the President has decreed, "An executive department or agency official shall not consider the view of a lobbyist registered under the Lobbying […]

Contractors' Rep: Proposal Threatens 'Butchery'

PUBLIC INFORMATION — "Apparently, open warfare will break out among companies vying for city contracts if San Diego City Council hands them a potentially dangerous tool: the right to request the public records of their fellow contractors," writes Rani Gupta, reporting for VoiceOfSanDiego.org. Jim Ryan of the local chapter of the Associated General Contractors told a City Council committee on Wednesday that if the council were to require that contractors comply with the California Public Records Act, companies would "use this simply as a tool to butcher their competitors." "They all get along when they come to our cocktail parties," Ryan said, "but when they're bidding against each other, they're not so friendly with each other." A proposed ordinance drafted by former City Attorney Mike Aguirre would not have covered documents related to procure the contract, though they could become public if the contractor sought to amend the contract. Ryan detailed how he would use such a policy if he were a contractor by initially refraining from seeking a city contract. Then when the company that won the contract put in a relatively minor change order, Ryan said he would use the change as an excuse to use the city policy to request documents such as salaries, benefits and the schedule of the job. He would store that away in a file. The next time the contract came up to bid, Ryan said he would use the information to figure out what his competitor would bid, then underbid the competitor by an incremental amount. Councilwoman Donna Frye, who has advocated the measure to increase access to contractors' records, said she was "sort of shocked" by Ryan's deviousness, saying the proposal isn't meant to harass a […]

Transit Board Police Panel: No Notice Required?

OPEN MEETINGS  — San Francisco political blogger Melissa Griffin notes that "(a)fter the tragic shooting of Oscar Grant III at the hands of a BART police officer on New Year’s Day, the public rightfully demanded answers.  The transit agency’s board of directors sprang into action and created a committee made up of four board members."  But that committee has, she reports, stayed under the radar. I called BART spokesman Linton Johnson to see if the Police Department Review Committee has held any public meetings. “Plenty,” was his response. Really? I haven’t seen any meeting notices. The law doesn’t require meeting notices for this committee, I was told. Sure, but the law doesn’t prevent giving notice, either, I pointed out. Mr. Johnson explained that sometimes, at regular BART board meetings, committee members will announce when the next committee meeting will be held. You can learn when the next meeting is by watching the previous board meeting on the Internet. (I checked, and there’s no such announcement in any of the posted clips.) I asked if it is it fair to expect members of the public to figure that out. Apparently, it is. I tried to get some clarification: Committee meetings are open to the public, but no one is going to tell us where and when they are held? Well, we don’t want a crowd at every meeting — sometimes the committee needs to meet in a more intimate setting, he replied. When the committee reports to the full BART board, people can comment, plus committee members talk to community leaders and organizations all the time. CalAware has posted a comment, correcting the mistaken impression that no public notice of these meetings is required. Alert credit: […]

Courts Already Noting Obama A.G.'s FOIA Policy

PUBLIC INFORMATION — "A skeptical person might presume that the new Freedom of Information Act policy announced by Attorney General Eric Holder on March 19 declaring that agencies should “adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure” is a rhetorical posture without much practical significance," comments Steven Aftergood in his Secrecy News blog. After all, requesters who used FOIA during the Clinton era know that agencies frequently withheld information even when it would have caused no “foreseeable harm,” despite the policy of Attorney General Reno that such information should be released.  (Nor, for that matter, did agencies during the Bush Administration always withhold information every time they were legally entitled to do so, as the Ashcroft policy advised.) But remarkably, federal courts are already considering the new Holder policy in response to plaintiff requests and are modifying the course of pending FOIA litigation as a result. In one case, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) asked a court to stay a proceeding and to order the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Justice to reconsider their denial of requested records by employing the new Holder guidelines.  Those agencies opposed the idea.  But in a March 23 opinion (pdf), Judge Jeffrey S. White of the Northern District of California granted the EFF motion. Likewise, in another EFF FOIA lawsuit this week, Judge John D. Bates ordered (pdf) the Department of Justice “to evaluate whether the new FOIA guidelines affect the scope of its disclosures and claimed withholdings in this case.” Incidentally, in its case filed in the Northern California District, "EFF seeks the disclosure of records maintained by Defendants concerning the alleged efforts of the agencies and telecommunications companies to encourage changes in […]

San Francisco Gets Site to Track Stimulus Flow

OPEN GOVERNMENT — The federal government started it and the state followed suit. Now it  appears that San Francisco will set up a Web site to track federal stimulus money that is flowing to The City, reports Brent Begin at SFExaminer.com. That’s the idea behind a Website under construction, www.recoverysf.org, according to Ron Vinson, chief administrative officer of the San Francisco Department of Technology. The site will track all the money being sunk into San Francisco’s “shovel ready” projects such as the rebuilding of Doyle Drive, the seismically unsafe southern approach to the Golden Gate Bridge. The money is coming from the $787 billion federal stimulus bill. Obama has urged states to be mindful and cautious in using the federal stimulus dollars received from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The White House put together a Website that tracks the money, www.recovery.gov, for everyone to see. California has its own Website at www.recovery.ca.gov. And these state and local sites are needed, writes Paul West in the Baltimore Sun, because the federal tansparency soon becomes opaque as the funds trickle down. Under the Obama administration's transparency guidelines, "the money disappears after it changes hands twice," said Greg LeRoy of Good Jobs First, a liberal watchdog group that wants more complete disclosure. As things stand, the federal government will disclose how much money it gives to a state, and the state must report back on how that money is distributed to a private company, or to a local government. Beyond that point, there is no requirement for disclosing where the money finally ends up, he said. LeRoy's group is part of the Coalition for an Accountable Recovery, which has warned that there could be "corruption on a […]

How San Diego Could Use Even More Sunshine

By Carl DeMaio and Donna Frye, Members of the San Diego City Council  See Voice of San Diego for original story and reader comments OPEN GOVERNMENT – March 15-21, 2009 marks "Sunshine Week" all across the country. No, we aren't predicting a week with perfect weather — though we usually are blessed with that in San Diego. We're talking about a week dedicated to advancing the cause of "open government" — an issue where we are not quite as blessed. Open government is a simple concept that holds the public has a right to know what government is doing — and why. Open government is not just about shining a light on what is going on inside government, it is also about engaging and empowering the public to get more involved in the processes of government. By commemorating a Sunshine Week, the goal is to better educate the public on what kinds of government information they have a right to access — and how to best access it. More importantly, the focus on Sunshine Week is to push elected leaders to reform government processes to make them more open and accessible to the public. For example, the City Council majority voted recently to increase the number of evening meetings to make it easier for the public to participate. Progress has also been made regarding closed session meetings. In 2004, significant reforms included requiring more detailed descriptions of all closed session items, and that the public be provided the opportunity to speak on all closed session items. The ultimate goal was to ensure that closed sessions were the exception to the open meeting requirements, not the rule. Although not required by law, a provision was added requiring all […]

Pastor Jailed for Anti-abortion Leafleting

 FREE SPEECH – A pastor at a Berkeley church was jailed Friday for 30 days after unsuccessfully arguing that an order requiring him to stay 100 yards away from an Oakland abortion clinic violates his right to free speech, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. Walter Hoye, 52, of Union City was the first person convicted under an Oakland ordinance barring protesters from coming within 8 feet of anyone entering an abortion clinic. In February, Judge Stuart Hing of Alameda County Superior Court sentenced Hoye to three years' probation and 30 days in jail, and ordered him to pay $1,000. Hoye could have disposed of the jail time in a sheriff's work detail or by volunteering. But he balked at the judge's order to stay 100 yards from Family Planning Specialists Medical Group at Second and Webster streets. Hoye argued that the order was more severe than Oakland's ordinance and stifled his First Amendment rights. Hing refused to budge at a hearing Friday at which Hoye's attorneys tried to stay the sentence pending an appeal. The judge asked Hoye to decide whether he wished to serve a month in jail or in an alternative program, and the pastor chose jail.***** Hoye, executive elder of the Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in south Berkeley, hands out anti-abortion literature outside abortion clinics. He was arrested May 13 at the Oakland clinic, carrying a sign that read, "Jesus loves you and your baby. Let us help you!" As women approached the door, he asked them, "May I talk to you about alternatives to the clinic?"