Mayor says handing some documents to TV station would jeopardize security
San Francisco’s local ABC news station has filed a complaint against The Mayor’s Office of Communications and the Office of Emergency Services and Homeland Security claiming that the two city departments are refusing to comply with public records laws by withholding information about San Francisco’s emergency preparedness plans.
The complaint was filed with The City’s Sunshine Ordinance Task Force and will be reviewed by the agency’s Complaint Committee on Tuesday.
San Francisco’s Sunshine Ordinance was approved by city voters in 1999 to make it easier for the public to attain government records and gain access to meetings than what is provided by California law.
Filed by KGO-TV producer Beth Rimbey and investigative news reporter Dan Noyes, the complaint states that the news station has struggled throughout the last year to get a complete copy of The City’s emergency operations plan, which they say is in the public interest to know.
“These are important issues affecting the lives of all who live and work in the city of San Francisco,” the complaint read.
Asked about the complaint, Mayor Gavin Newsom told The Examiner that The City has provided KGO-TV “literally thousands of pages of documents,” but has rightfully withheld information that would “put at risk the security of the people of San Francisco.”
The complaint comes on the heels of two other government access complaints — one filed against Newsom and another against his Office of Communication — brought before the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force last week. In the first complaint, the oversight organization found that the mayor failed to offer members of the public an opportunity to speak at a recent meeting of The City’s Disaster Council.
In the second, the task force expressed concern over withheld e-mails about Newsom’s veto of legislation that would have informed prospective property buyers about any evictions of seniors or the disabled. Newsom subsequently approved release of the e-mails, which included one from his Communications Office suggesting that news of the veto could be “buried” by releasing at the same time other news is announced.
Asked about KGO-TV’s Sunshine complaint, Noyes said the station’s lawyers would consider filing legal action against The City.
“We take our role as watchdogs seriously,” Noyes said. “We’re not lapdogs.”
While refusing to call Noyes by name, Newsom said the ongoing requests for documents were excessive.
“Any objective observer will agree that particular reporter has hardly been acting appropriately,” Newsom said.
In May, the Office of Emergency Services and Homeland Security received an unfavorable audit from The City’s budget analyst, Harvey Rose, charging that more preparations were needed to brace for a catastrophic event.
James Chadwick, an attorney who focuses on media law and represents the San Jose Mercury News, said it has not been unusual for government agencies, particularly post-Sept. 11, to cite public security when withholding documents, but also noted that public faith began to wear thin after Hurricane Katrina.
“These plans need to be subjected to scrutiny from people whose interests and expertise are different from the public agencies that formulated them,” he said. “Otherwise you can’t be assured that you’re going to have an effective plan.”