Glimmers of sunshine

Freedom of information can take many forms, but the principle stays the same

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rebecca@sfbg.com

For 29 years, San Francisco Bay Area journalists have gathered in mid-March — around the birthday of founding father and free-press advocate James Madison — to recognize reporters, attorneys, citizens, and others who fight to shake or keep information free.

The act of standing up to defend the principle of freedom of information can be rather unglamorous, sometimes leading to grueling lawsuits. It's grown even more complicated with the rise of the Internet, the decline of traditional newspapers, and the dawn of an Information Age that delivers instantaneous material that is at once more slippery and abundant than ever.

And yet, the digital realm has opened up a whole new battlefield in the fight for open access to relevant information the public needs to know. This year, the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists' Freedom of Information Committee took the rare step of granting a posthumous Public Service James Madison Award to Internet activist Aaron Swartz.

As a leader in the digital rights movement, Swartz, who died at the age of 26 by taking his own life, was on the forefront of a movement that fought to uphold open access to information in the face of a corporate power grab that threatened to result in online censorship.

The fight against SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (the Protect Intellectual Property Act) in early 2012 marked just one of Swartz's accomplishments as he fought for free and open access to information. Among his other contributions was RECAP, an online listing of court materials that allowed free access to documents held in the federal, paywall-protected court filing system called PACER.

To commemorate Swartz's work, the Bay Guardian presents in this issue an illustrated history of his activism. While recipients of James Madison Awards have typically been individuals who took on government bureaucracies to wrest information out of the shadows and into the public eye, Swartz's battle revolved around freeing information that is locked up by private interests, or protected by copyright.

"We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world," he wrote in a 2008 essay titled "Guerilla Open Access Manifesto." "We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks."

But first, here are a few updates on the fight for open access to information in San Francisco and beyond.

 

NO SHINING EXAMPLE

In 1999, San Francisco voters enacted a law to strengthen citizens' access to government records and public meetings. To ensure that the open-access law was properly upheld, it also created a local body called the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force.

At each meeting, San Franciscans frustrated by their inability to get the information they sought from city bureaucracies appear before the board to air their grievances, in the hopes that the decisions to withhold documents will be reversed. Typically, citizens lodge around 100 complaints per year, according to task force clerk Victor Young.

Comments

Jason Grant Garza here ... yes, the guy who continues to post and NOT heard in regard to the RIGGED process; however TIME has repeatedly vindicated yet the rigged, no results process continues. Is it new ... http://www.sfbg.com/36/49/news_sunshine.html (notice the date - 09/04/02) "Earlier in the hearing, Garza told the task force its rulings "don't amount to a hill of beans" if no one in the city will enforce or abide by them. Task force members responded that their new committee, the Compliance and Amendments Committee, will strive to monitor compliance and recommend enforcement. Members of the committee will be Heather Sterner (chair), Richard Knee, and Alexandra Nickliss. " and then in 05/05/09 http://www.sfbg.com/bruce/2009/05/05/editorial-making-sunshine-work-san-... "Fourteen times the Sunshine Task Force has asked the Ethics Commission for action on sunshine violations.
And l4 times Ethics has dismissed those cases with little investigation. The supervisors need to hold hearings with the goal of placing a charter amendment on the ballot to give the task force independent authority to order the release of documents and to sanction city officials who flout the law. "
. It is now 2014 and what has changed? Go to youtube and type in Jason Garza to see over 300 videos in regard to health care, sunshine (the MINISTRY of Sunshine) and right enforcement .... what has changed? Keep watching the videos as I will continue ... learn the GAMES and watch the INHUMANITY ... no compliance in 2002, no enforcement even in 2009 and in 2014 STILL rigged and unaccountable procedure ... NO HOPE, NO RESULTS and NO SUNSHINE .... welcome to the MINISTRY. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VZvd4wSurNE and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MrPo-bBy9Y8

Posted by Jason Grant Garza on Mar. 14, 2014 @ 12:20 pm

March 15, 2014

Steven T. Jones
Editor-in-Chief
San Francisco Bay Guardian
225 Bush Street, 17th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94104

Dear Mr. Jones,

I have reason to believe that on March 4, a Sunshine advocate and open-government wizard contacted the Bay Guardian requesting that you include in your planned FOIA issue, an article focusing on Allen Grossman’s lawsuit against the Ethics Commission that is languishing in the Appellate Court. One way or another, the case may turn out to set precedents in the City affecting the public’s right to know what our government is doing in our names, and the level of secrecy the City seeks to preserve. Depending on the outcome at the Appellate level, this case may have the potential of reaching California’s Supreme Court.

So I was shocked to learn that on March 10, that you had responded to a request for coverage that the Guardian would not “get into this lawsuit at this time. It's just way too narrow and wonky to devote a whole story to, and frankly I think you'll have a hard time convincing a judge that the Sunshine Ordinance trumps attorney-client privilege.”

Really, Mr. Jones: It could end up reaching the Supreme Court, but is “too wonky” to devote a whole story to? Jeesh! Did you bother reading the final brief filed by Grossman’s lawyer, Michael Ng, who asserts no attorney-client privilege ever attached to the records Grossman sought, and so of course, the Sunshine Ordinance takes over? While the City Attorney wails about this “trumping” issue, the issue falls apart on close examination. Which examination you think is “too wonky”?

Then, I was surprised to see that when the Guardian hit news racks on Wednesday, March 10, that the best Rebecca Bowe and Brian McMahon could work into their “Glimmers of Sunshine” article on page 9 of the Guardian, was a single 20-word clause alluding to Grossman’s case [“… plus a lawsuit revolving around the city’s refusal disclose [sic: to disclose] how the City Attorney’s Office advises agencies on Sunshine Ordinance interpretations, …”].

Legal briefs filed by both sides to date in Court records number at least 275 pages. And all Ms. Bowe could devote were just 20 words to describe Grossman’s case? After she acknowledged in her introduction that the act of standing up to defend FOI can be rather unglamorous, and sometimes lead to grueling lawsuits? Grossman’s case is a prime example of a grueling lawsuit to defend San Francisco’s local FOI protections via the Sunshine Ordinance. And you conclude his lawsuit is merely “wonky”?

Knowing in advance of the Guardian’s demurral to report (however extensively or not) on Grossman’s case in your annual FOI issue, I was stunned turning to Wednesday’s San Francisco Chronicle the same day the Guardian hit news racks. The Chronicle’s Bob Egelko published a several-hundred-word article describing Grossman’s case in the Appellate Court.

How could the Chronicle have scooped the Guardian reporting on Grossman’s case?

As another prominent open government advocate noted yesterday, it’s ironic that we’ve reached the point where the Chronicle does a fairly major story reporting on a [very major] Sunshine issue, while the Bay Guardian does not.

“Progressives” being scooped by “moderate” conservatives is all too telling.

For that matter, Tim Redmond reported on his new web site last week that City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s new spokesperson, Gabriel Zitrin, claimed that San Francisco’s city attorney would be the only lawyer in the State “who [would have] to abide by a restriction that no other lawyer faces.” Redmond also didn’t do his fact-checking, since it turns out Zitrin is wrong. Both Milpitas and Vallejo have similar local Sunshine law restrictions that other City Attorney’s are already facing. And the sky hasn’t fallen in either jurisdiction.

Just how far has journalism fallen that the Guardian’s annual FOI issue mentions just 20 words about Grossman’s case, and is scooped by the Chronicle?

May I suggest that you read my article, “Sandbagging, Legal Fairy Dust, and Double-Speak” available on my web site ? I admit it’s long reading, but it summarizes about 275 to 325 pages of legal briefs and the relevant law. Hopefully, there’s a nugget or two in my article that may help convince you Grossman’s case is not at all “wonky.” His case involves whether all San Franciscans, including the Guardian, will be able to rely on the Sunshine Ordinance if he prevails.

And if he doesn’t prevail, whether that will grant the City free license to gut multiple, entire sections of the Sunshine Ordinance, and gut your ability to obtain records under the Sunshine Ordinance. This isn’t about “wonky.” This is about the very survival of the Sunshine Ordinance.

Patrick Monette-Shaw
Columnist
Westside Observer Newspaper
Recipient of 2012 SPJ-NorCal James Madison Freedom of Information Award, Advocacy Category

Posted by MPetrelis on Mar. 16, 2014 @ 9:54 am

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