About Us

Contact Us

Monday, May 10, 2002

Let the Sun Shine In

An argument for open meetings of the School Board ... and elsewhere

By Richard Knee

At least four members of the Board of Supervisors favor the idea of expanding the city's Sunshine Ordinance to include the school district. But whether they'll go beyond what is essentially a motherhood motion remains to be seen.

At the request of Supervisor Leland Yee, the board's Rules & Audits Committee unanimously sent to the full board on Tuesday a resolution urging the Board of Education to make the ordinance, which spells out open-meetings and public-records-access provisions, applicable to the school district, including its governing board. The committee comprises chairman Tony Hall, Matt Gonzalez and Gerardo Sandoval.

Action by the full Board of Supervisors is scheduled next Monday.

Yee's request comes at an interesting juncture and it raises some questions. A review of the ordinance by the appointed panel that oversees its implementation, the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force (SOTF), is in progress. If the Board of Education balks, the supervisors or the voters could force the issue by putting it on the ballot (because the latest version of the ordinance was passed by initiative, all subsequent revisions must receive voters' approval), though neither Yee nor any of the committee members raised that possibility at the panel's meeting.

Whether a resolution by the supervisors would prod the school trustees to embrace the ordinance remains to be seen. The idea has been tossed around among the trustees over the past few years. But most of them seem interested in finding excuses not to do it.

As former SOTF member Bob Planthold told the Rules & Audits panel on Tuesday, school board members at a recent committee meeting spent their time worrying out loud about how much it would cost to adopt the ordinance.

Here's a rough idea: When a series of amendments to the original, 1993 Sunshine Ordinance went on the ballot as Proposition G in 1999, city Controller Ed Harrington estimated the cost would be roughly $1 per resident the first year and about half that in subsequent years.

What the school trustees don't seem anxious to discuss is how much the lack of sunshine is costing the taxpayers, a point underscored to the Rules & Audits Committee by outgoing SOTF member Hilda Bernstein, who has chaired the task force the past year. Not too long ago, a series of questionable expenditures by some school district employees came at the expense of the students, Bernstein said. Had the Sunshine Ordinance's reach included the school district, it might have served as a deterrent, she pointed out.

Also worth asking is why the board's forthcoming resolution should be addressed only to the Board of Education. Why shouldn't it include the Community College Board of Trustees, and the Port and Airport commissions as well? – though City College of San Francisco is in the process of drafting its own. Neither Yee nor the Rules & Audits committee members responded when this writer raised the issue on Tuesday.

The matter takes on added relevance with recent revelations by San Francisco Chronicle political sleuths Phil Matier and Andy Ross about the Airport Department's lavish spending on lobbyists during a period of drastic cuts in spending on services.

Meanwhile, some additional pressure could come in the form of a state-constitutional amendment, being proposed by Senate President Pro-tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) and six co-authors, that would strengthen sunshine laws regulating the conduct of state as well as regional and local officials and entities.

Senate Constitutional Amendment 7 has yet to be heard in committee. The co-authors and the amendment's crafters – the California First Amendment Coalition and the California Newspaper Publishers Association – are in talks with various interested parties that have voiced some misgivings.

For SCA 7 to reach the ballot this November, it must receive two-thirds approvals from the Senate and the Assembly by June 27. Details and updates are available at www.cfac.org.

Richard Knee is a freelance writer and a member of the city’s Sunshine Ordinance Task Force. More information about the Sunshine Ordinance can be found at www.sfgov.org/bdsupvrs/sunshine/ordinance.htm