OPEN GOVERNMENT -- In a lawsuit filed Monday in San Francisco Superior Court, open government advocate Allen Grossman charges that the city's Ethics Commission suppressed public records relating to its consistent failure to enforce violations of state and local open government laws.
"These suppressed public records," says a press statement by Grossman, "will likely establish that the Ethics Commission and its Executive Director, John St. Croix, had no justification for their summary dismissal of every violation by City officials, including the Mayor andthe City Attorney, of open government laws referred to the Ethics Commission by the SunshineOrdinance Task Force, a total of 14 such referrals over the past five years."
Under the Citys Sunshine Ordinance, the Task Force decides whether such a violation exists and, if so, orders the official involved to disclose the public record. If the official refuses to comply with thedisclosure Order, the Task Force refers the case to the Ethics Commission for enforcement. In more egregious cases, the Task Force also may find official misconduct by the official, a finding, which if enforced, could result in the officials removal from office.
The lawsuit alleges that the Ethics Commission itself is violating the California Public Records Act and the Citys Sunshine Ordinance by illegally withholding the very public records that would shed any light on its non-action in every one of the 14 Task Force referred cases, including those in which the Task Force found official misconduct.
The Ethics Commission was created by a Charter Amendment passed by San Francisco voters in 1993 to enforce ethical standards of conduct in City Government. Similarly, in 1999 the voters overwhelmingly approved a strengthened Sunshine Ordinance to give this City the strongest mandate for transparency in government in the State.
Mr. Grossman stated when filing his lawsuit, "In the face of the strong open government message delivered to the City government by the voters, the notion that the Ethics Commission exists as a sort of black hole of open government enforcement is simply not acceptable. We have no idea how much secrecy in our City government has been fostered by the Ethics Commissions refusal to make even one example of a defiant official.
These fourteen cases are all of the referrals from 2004 to the present. In each there was neither enforcement nor an adequate justification for its absence. "These are not technical violations." Grossman said, "This is an assault on the public's right to know."
According to Kimo Crossman, a leader in open government advocacy and founder of the Sunshine Posse, "The Ethics Commission has been a major disgrace by failing to act on even one violation, including some of those violations that the Task Force found to be flagrant and willful. The result has been that the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force has been effectively handcuffed, although the Ethics Commission was created to make enforcement possible to promote ethical government."
Some current and former members of the Task Force have also expressed their concern that this unbroken pattern of unjustified dismissals has weakened the Task Force and the cause of open government in the City.
A hearing on Mr. Grossmans Petition is scheduled for November 12. Under state law, these public records petitions are given expedited treatment and, if successful, the petitioner is awarded attorney's fees.