A Citizen's Guide
A month ago, I penned for this paper a cynical but true guide to "How to Lie, Cheat, and Steal Your Way to Influence at City Hall -- Legally." This week, I'd like to offer its antidote: "A Citizen's Guide to San Francisco Politics."
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.