S.F. pays lobbyist to advocate for government secrecy, critics say

As the Examiner reported last week, lobbyists paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by the city in recent years haven't bothered to file required reports with the Ethics Commission showing what they did to earn that money since 2005. The commission's executive director, John St. Croix, acknowledged that he "dropped the ball," while reps from the city's lobbying firm insisted no one told them about the local reporting requirements — and that it wasn't even in their contract.

Granted, the screw-up is more of a misdemeanor than a felony; during the same period, the lobbyists did file reports of their activities (albeit less detailed ones than the city requires) with the secretary of state. But one open-government advocate has since come across something more alarming: Two years ago, the city paid its lobbying firm to push passage of a law restricting public access to government data in violation of San Francisco's Sunshine Ordinance.

"I think this is a very big deal," said Terry Francke, the general counsel for the open-government group CalAware and drafter of the city's Sunshine Ordinance. "The people who established the Sunshine Ordinance wanted to make sure their efforts were not undercut by the city's lobbyists going to Sacramento and trying to get more secrecy in state law."

But it appears that's just what happened. In 2007, city-funded lobbyists successfully pushed for AB 101, sponsored by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma and the City of San Francisco. You may remember the hullabaloo around this quirky law, which authorized the City of San Francisco — and no other city — to install forward-facing cameras on Muni vehicles to potentially bust ingrates who park in bus zones and the like.

And yet within the law AB 101 became is the explicit statement that, California Public Records Act be damned, the images captured by those cameras will remain confidential. Francke and other concerned open-government activists are quick to point out, however, that the Sunshine Ordinance clearly states: "Funds of the City and County of San Francisco ... shall not be used to support any lobbying efforts to restrict public access to records, information, or meetings."

Steven Wallauch, a lobbyist who worked on behalf of the city on this issue, says legislators and even the ACLU mandated that the video records be made confidential. Francke isn't swayed. He doesn't see how one's privacy is violated by videos being taken in a public place. And he's worried about what would happen if a media or advocacy group demanded to see the videos to determine whether the law is being applied even-handedly. Government employees double-park or block bus stops all the time — but if outside parties can't see the footage, who's to know?

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