There’s a current running through San Francisco.
Dissatisfaction is boiling. You can feel it almost tangibly — whether it’s grumbling from everyday San Franciscans facing rising rents or the roaring protests on the streets to defend the homeless.
Of course, this dissatisfaction has long lingered. But a rash of recent protests centering on homelessness and #BlackLivesMatter show it’s erupting to the surface. But the Brass Liberation Orchestra can only blare its horns at so many protests.
So how else can you effect change in The City?
Welcome to your Citizen Advocacy Guide. It’s brief, but hopefully everyday San Franciscans can use it to empower themselves to be aware of the inner machinations of government, push policy makers and advocate while crucial laws are formed.
Expose government by using public records
To keep politicians on their toes, you need knowledge. One tool to pry open the clockwork of government is San Francisco’s Sunshine Ordinance.
Point yourself to www.bit.ly/SFsunshine for more detailed info. Essentially, San Francisco’s Sunshine Ordinance empowers the public to request — almost — any record from any city government agency. There are some exceptions. Also, if the request is too vast, it’ll be denied.
Different agencies are governed by different public records laws: San Francisco by the Sunshine Ordinance, California agencies by the California Public Records Act and federal agencies by the Freedom of Information Act.
You can request the emails of specific Public Works staffers using particular keywords — like “homeless” — or ask for data revealing the number of parking citations issued in your ZIP code. The agency can’t create records for you, but if it exists, you have the right to see it.
An example: “I hereby request all complaints related to the Super Bowl City sent to the Board of Supervisors from Jan. 1, 2016, until Feb. 5, 2016.”
Watch your inbox flood from that one.
Join a club to amplify your voice
Everything in San Francisco has a damn constituency. Neighborhoods, business groups, bus stops.
Hell, even roller skates have a constituency.
To join your constituency, find a democratic club, meet once or twice a month and let those club leaders know your gripes. Too many car break-ins? The club will represent your interests and contact city government on your behalf, with the voice of The Many — which often carries political weight.
Get a start with the Democratic Party’s listing of local democractic clubs here: www.sfdemocrats.org/chartered_clubs.
Follow the money
Who’s spending money to support who? Local political spending going back to 1999 is readily available on the Ethics Commission campaign finance database, available at www.bit.ly/SFfinance. Let’s throw a dart and look at a random politician’s filings.
Alex Randolph is a recently elected City College of San Francisco board trustee. Clicking over to the Ethics Commission’s campaign finance database, Randolph’s filings show William “Bill” Barnes, a project manager in San Francisco government, gave his 2015 campaign $250.
Who knows why Barnes, a highly placed government employee, gave to Randolph’s campaign? There could be myriad reasons. To find out more, you could use your newfound knowledge of public record requests and ask for Barnes’ communications with Randolph.
Randolph also netted $500 from Mark Pincus, CEO of video game company Zynga — maybe that’s a fringe benefit of growing oodles of crops in Farmville?
Follow the lobbyists
Following the lobbyists is almost as crucial as following the money. The lobbyist activity database at the Ethics Commission can be found at www.bit.ly/SFlobbyists. Individual lobbyists like former Mayor Willie Brown are listed (search 2014). Or you can track lobbying agencies, like Platinum Advisors.
Fun facts: Platinum lobbied Public Works on behalf of Hearst Corporation (owners of the Chronicle), and Planning Commissioner Rich Hillis on behalf of Airbnb.
Watch politicians debate law
I hear this gripe all the time: Who has the time to show up at government meetings, anyway?
Well, if you’d like to watch Supervisor Scott Wiener verbally spar with Supervisor David Campos (which is more interesting than “The Voice” but not as dramatic as “The Walking Dead”), mouse over to SFGovTV, at www.sfgovtv.org. The site has a video archive of government meetings going back years. Parents can catch up with the Board of Education, taxi drivers can catch up with the Taxicab Commission and the hungover constituency can check out the Entertainment Commission.
This is just a small sampling of ways to keep tabs on government. Use it to stay On Guard.
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each Tuesday. Email him at email@example.com.