Aug. 28 2013 10:51 AM

Government-transparency advocates look past Filner to a new era

In happier times, Bob Filner and Donna Frye appeared together in March to unveil a new open-government website that, through no fault of Frye, failed to deliver.
Photo by David Rolland

When San Diego Mayor Bob Filner hired former City Councilmember Donna Frye last December to be the city's first-ever director of open government, activists, journalists and other interested members of the public excitedly anticipated a new era of government transparency.

After all, the newly elected mayor came to power preaching reform and delivering convincing populist rhetoric. As proof of his commitment, he showcased Frye, whoíd vociferously and passionately fought for more than a decade to better inform the public about what its city was up to.

"It was a really exciting time," Frye, who's also the president of Californians Aware, a nonprofit established to promote open government, said this week. "My vision was to make it easier for the public to get documents to which they were entitled, to post information online and to do that in a way that was understandable and accessible."

It would have been hard to predict what followed. Besides the allegations of sexual harassment and other demeaning behavior toward women that led to the mayor's departure, effective Friday, Aug. 30, government transparency under Filner suffered profoundly.

Under the California Public Records Act (PRA), the city typically has 10 days to determine if documents requested by citizens are publicly disclosable and turn them over.

Under Filner, the city responded to public-records requests within 10 days only 50 percent of the time, according to the most recently available city documents. That's a precipitous drop from 2012, when, under Mayor Jerry Sanders, the city responded within 10 days roughly 83 percent of the time.

When it came to dealing with such requests for public information, Frye said she had "absolutely no authority."

"My ability to implement what I believed was a shared vision did not happen because I couldn't stay working there anymore, and because I don't believe it was a shared vision," Frye said. "I think it was something that was way more important to me than it was to Bob Filner."

In "unusual circumstances," such as when the process of procuring documents is time-consuming or they need to be reviewed by a lawyer for possible redaction, the response date can be extended by another 14 days, according to the PRA. However, the reasons for the extension and the date by which a determination is expected must be included in a written notice.

Over recent months, in response to numerous records requests, CityBeat has more often than not received notices of extension from the city with no explanation and vague timelines for compliance. At the same time, the city has repeatedly ignored our written requests asking for justifications concerning what have become routine extensions.

The city is "too busy" to explain why it needs extensions for every public-records request, said Lea Fields-Bernard, the city's program coordinator for Public Records Act requests, during an in-person meeting.

This disregard for the state's public-records law is "very unusual," said Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware. "They are writing into the Public Records Act a local amendment that says that they have no real commitment to meeting the state-law requirement of a substantive response within 10 days."

Most open-government advocates will tell you that access to public documents is one of the most crucial parts of having an informed electorate. Information requests can include crime statistics, salaries of public employees, planning documents, calendars that show with whom politicians are meeting and copies of internal emails on specified topics.

The city's own guidebook on public-records requests states, "By law, the City's business is the people's businesses and the people have the right to access information that will allow them to be informed on or influence the affairs of their City government."

However, City Hall's transparency issues have not only affected Joe Public; they've significantly impacted the legislative branch of San Diego's government. For example, City Council President Todd Gloria said he's been trying in vain to get information regarding the potential hiring of city lobbyists for more than eight months.

"None has been provided, yet we hear anecdotally that people are being interviewed, maybe contracts have been drafted," he said. "None of that has been given to the City Council."

A culture of secrecy is nothing new at City Hall, Frye said. "It is not just a Bob Filner issue. It has been going on as long as I can remember."

In 2004, Frye obtained, through a records request of her own, a sewer-rate study that showed the city had been knowingly charging homeowners a disproportionate share of water-treatment costs compared with local businesses. Once the news went public, the city was forced to modify the fee schedule.

Information became even harder to come by in 2006, when the city first implemented the so-called "strong mayor" form of government, Frye said. The new structure removed the mayor from the legislative body to act as the chief executive overseeing all municipal departments.

"If you did not support the mayor's vision or the things they wanted to do, they would put you through hell trying to get even basic information," she said.

Environmental attorney Cory Briggs, who's successfully sued the city multiple times to get public records, agreed that transparency issues got worse with Filner but didn't start with him.

"It's a culture," he said. "All of these people pay lip service to it and are happy to keep you in the dark when it's their pet project. If everything these people are doing is so good for the public, they should be bragging about these public documents."

With Filner stepping down on Friday, Gloria will take over as acting mayor for roughly five months before voters choose a new mayor. One of his first actions, he said, will be to clear the "backlog" of public-information requests.

"A part of the healing process that we need to go through as a city is about reestablishing trust with the public, and one of the primary ways to do that is by being transparent," he said.

For all the past troubles, there's hope on the horizon. An effort is underway to create a new paradigm under which requests for information are less necessary.

Eric Busboom, founder and director of the San Diego Regional Data Library—which started in January as a vehicle to help civic groups better understand the region and its issues through the use of data—said that the majority of the City Council, particularly Sherri Lightner and Mark Kersey, is "gung-ho" about developing a robust open-government website where the public can go for all manner of municipal documents. 

"They're definitely interested in going down that path," Busboom said. "They're just taking it kind of slow, partly because they want to assess the cost through the IBA"—the city's Independent Budget Analyst. "That process is going slowly, but it's not broken or stonewalled. It's actually going quite well."

Busboom said there are untold benefits to such a feature. "There's stuff that you and I don't know about that's valuable, that's interesting and useful that we don't have any clue that even exists," he said. "It turns out the other departments don't know it even exists, either.

"We usually think about open-data policies as something that the citizens demand from the government, but one of the biggest values is that the departments can't get data from other departments, and this makes it much easier for departments to do their work."

Having a meaningful open-government policy would give city bureaucrats who are afraid to share information the political cover they need, Busboom said.

Government officials often complain that while the PRA is necessary, complying with it requires significant staff resources. Transparency advocates say that's the beauty of open-government portals—if done right, they reduce the need for staff to respond to requests for information. 

"People ask for less stuff," Busboom said, "when you give what they want initially."

David Rolland contributed to this story.

Write to or follow him on twitter at @jemersonsmith.


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