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In an ironic twist to a meeting of San Francisco's Sunshine Ordinance Task Force last week, a whistle-blower charged that task force member Bruce B. Brugmann has repeatedly violated the very same open-meeting laws that the agency is supposed to enforce. The whistle-blower, Scott Trammell Moore, accused Brugmann of "initiat[ing] and engag[ing] in several illegal meetings with other members of the task force via e-mail and handwritten notes." He submitted a paper trail documenting the allegedly illegal communications, which apparently continued even after Brugmann was warned by the task force's lawyer to desist.
Brugmann, who publishes the San Francisco Bay Guardian, a weekly newspaper that has long championed making government meetings more open and accessible to the public, told his task force colleagues, "I have no idea what this is about, except that every now and then I send material to each member of the task force with a note. I checked with an attorney, anticipating this kind of attack. Ever since I joined the task force there has been a movement to get me off because I am a prime mover of the task force and the Sunshine Ordinance."
The Sunshine Ordinance Task Force is charged with enforcing public access to the workings of local government. Members of the 11-member task force are appointed by the Board of Supervisors for two-year terms. The current chair is Hilda Bernstein, a retired public administration consultant. The vice chair, until last week, was Paul M. Hogan, a software developer who is chair of the Alice B. Toklas Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Democratic Club.
On June 26, Moore, a political activist who was Webmaster of the Toklas club last year, filed a formal complaint with the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force as "a member of the general public seeking to protect my rights to participate in open government." The 13-page document is replete with e-mail and letters from Brugmann that were turned over to Moore by Hogan, who says he could not file the complaint himself because his rights as a member of the public were not harmed.
State and city open-meeting laws prohibit members of a policy body, such as the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, from holding meetings without giving the public advance notice of the time and place and agenda. The law also prohibits a quorum (a majority) of members of policy bodies from communicating with one another about policy matters between meetings. Outside a public meeting, a quorum may not "express opinions or advocate a position on an item of business before or likely to come before the policy body." This restriction on doing public business behind closed doors, as it were, also applies to quorums of committees of the policy body. The restriction applies to e-mail, telephone, and written communications.
Brugmann repeatedly violated that restriction. As one example, he urged a quorum of the complaint committee to, in essence, use its powers to benefit the plaintiff's case in a lawsuit against the city. The city is being sued by securities broker Dawn Clements, who is alleging fraud in its employment retirement fund. Clements lodged a complaint with the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, asking for access to city financial records.
In e-mail and letters, Brugmann said the committee should support Clements' position and compel the city attorney to reveal her defense strategy against Clements' lawsuit. To further muddy the waters, Clements' case has also become a cause célèbre of Brugmann's Bay Guardian.
On May 29, according to e-mails kept by Hogan, Brugmann initiated an illegal meeting by e-mailing the three other members of the complaint committee outlining his position on the Clements case and other matters before the task force. Deputy City Attorney Jackie Minor, who is legal counsel to the task force, immediately e-mailed a notice to the committee asking them notto reply to Brugmann's e-mail because it violated the Sunshine Ordinance. Minor then sent a letter to all task force members reminding them that committee quorums cannot discuss policy outside a public meeting.
Yet on June 21, Brugmann wrote a letter to the entire task force criticizing the city attorney. The next day he sent another e-mail to the complaint committee about his problems with the city attorney and the Clements case, thereby, according to Moore, initiating another illegal meeting. Since Brugmann is on the complaint committee, Moore has asked the task force to refer his complaint to the Board of Supervisors and the district attorney for investigation.
"Government belongs to everyone," Moore wrote. "It must never be conducted in secret. Because Bruce Brugmann was one of the principal authors of the Sunshine Ordinance, he of all people cannot be allowed to flout its rules when convenient."
In an interview, Hogan said he gave the Brugmann memos to Moore because he did not want to break the law. He said he is particularly troubled that, as a task force member, Brugmann insists on keeping Clements' complaint alive. And the continued championing of the Clements case by the Bay Guardian has made it impossible to determine if Brugmann's opinions are being expressed as a task force member or as publisher of the Guardian, Hogan said.