Sunshine, On My Shoulder, Makes Me Happy
So my good friend Eve Batey at the San Francisco Appeal shot me an email today with an idea so crazy it just might work. She suggested that I — me, Jackson West — might be a good candidate for San Francisco’s Sunshine Ordinance Task Force. And right now, even if you live in San Francisco, you are probably asking yourself, “What the fuck is the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force?” Which, frankly, was one of the things that convinced me I might actually be qualified: Because I do know what it is, and not only that, I want it to succeed.
Photo by Marshall Astor.
For a quick primer, San Francisco voters approved the Sunshine Ordinance back in 1999, right before I showed up in the Bay Area. It was passed during Willie “Da Mayor” Brown’s administration, because while Mr. Brown has a bright, beautiful smile and wears clothes so fine they’d dazzle a rainbow, his administration was not one marked by an earnest embrace of open government, public access to records and decision making. So the Sunshine Ordinance was intended to strengthen existing “Sunshine” provisions of the city’s administrative code and open meeting and records laws. Sort of like the national Freedom of Information Act or the state’s Public Records Act. Only for San Francisco, so therefore both more awesome and more maddeningly complicated.
All good right? Well, sort of. In fact, the procedures laid out for records requests ended up pissing off all sorts of people, both within and without City Hall, where things have been done a certain way for a long time, and politicians and city departments — surprise! — sometimes go out of their way to take the “public” out of “public business,” especially in the very cases where said public would very much like to know which backs are being scratched and by whom. But even public officials with good intentions (and, really, it’s most of them) and limited time and budgets have had trouble fulfilling Sunshine Ordinance requests in a timely manner, frustrating people with enough time on their hands to file such requests and make a very public stink when their demands aren’t satisfied.
Enter the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, which is responsible for mediating disputes and making sure city government complies with the law to the best of its abilities. It meets once a month, and is staffed by volunteers. It also gets to suggest changes to the rules, advise the Board of Supervisors on all relevant legislation, gets to commission one or more reports a year from the Supervisor of Public Records and, if serious questions of “shadiness” are raised about an official or department, refer it to a relevant enforcement agency, such as the city’s Ethics Commission. Fun, right? Oh, you weren’t in Junior State and never pored over the World Wide Web Consortium’s accessibility standards documents? Well, then, just trust me, it looks like fun.
So as Eve discovered, pretty much the entire Task Force is set to see their terms expire on April 27th. And one of the seats, currently occupied by respected area journalist Sue Cauthen, is especially set aside for a “Member of the press or electronic media with an interest in citizen access,” with four more seats set aside for people who have “Demonstrated interest in or has experience in the issues of citizen access and participation in local government.” Which, if you haven’t figured it out by now, all kind of describe me. And did I mention it doesn’t pay? So it’s not like I’m in it for the money, and wouldn’t be taking any bread off of Ms. Cauthen’s table. No, I want the job because I love this shit so that you don’t have to! And, as a “Member of the press or electronic media,” I sure as hell have proven my willingness to work for free in the interest of informing the body politic.
What would I bring to this bread-free table? Well, I’m a sucker for studying public documents, including studying up on the intricacies of the Sunshine Ordinance itself. I have extensive knowledge of and professional experience in preparing such documents for distribution and publication, both digitally and in print. I’ve also made a habit of studying copyright issues, have actually filed FOIA requests (though, in the interest of full disclosure, I still owe the National Labor Relations Board $49 and some change for that one time), have a good grip on parliamentary process (did I mention Junior State?), and, maybe most importantly, but not to boast, I know a lot (or, at least, more than most elected officials) about open data formats, databases, designing for accessibility, data mining and online publishing tools.
So while the SOTF does concern itself with individual cases, there is much I feel I could do as an advocate for more openness online as well. For instance, just in studying the Web site, I noted that on the main Sunshine Ordinance page alone were links to one Word document and three PDF documents. And while admitting that, yes, it’s great that these documents are available at all, and there are links to application downloads to view said Word and PDF documents, these are formats specifically intended for people to save and then print, and do not lend themselves to online viewing, mobile access or easy interpretation by computational tools like scripts and database queries, and therefore might hinder access by users of low-power computers, slow network connections or software for enabling sight- and mobility-impared users. Plus, if you want the latest updates, you’ll have to check the site — there is no RSS feed or even a Twitter account (and we all know how much politicians love Twitter) to send notifications.
Now, I realize that as someone who has written extensively (and sometimes even humorously) about city politics I may not exactly be beloved by the folks who might support my application through the appointment process — which would have to go through the Rules Committee, Board of Supervisors and eventually be approved by the mayor who, if he even knows who I am, probably hates my guts. I have said some unkind things! As I probably have of at least four current Supervisors, which would rule out any veto-proof majority. I have also not always exercised good judgment in many other aspects of my life in ways unrelated, though also probably related, to serving as a public official in even a small capacity.
To them I say, well, I’ve also sometimes written nice things! Or nothing at all! (Which, I realize, may actually make an elected official even angrier.) And of my indiscretions and human failings, well, I’ve been pretty public about those, at least. Also, being composed of volunteers, and having to rely on the understaffed, underfunded Ethics Commission for most enforcement matters, the bickering lovelies on the Board for any amendments, and the Department of Technology and Information Services for implementing any technology upgrades, not to mention ten other SOTF principals who certainly aren’t known for unanimity, rest assured that I’d be doomed to get anything of consequence actually changed, so there’s that.
But I would show up, and I’d be deeply interested, and even though I’d be hard pressed not to crack bad, nerdy jokes what with a public forum and SFGTV cameras possibly rolling, they would be in the interest of laughing to keep from crying, as I would actually take it very seriously. With all the talk of being more open with public data coming from every level of government, and the pace of technological change that many lament said government seems unable to cope with, I actually think (well, to be honest, Eve thinks) that I might be the right person at the right time for the job. And I went to the trouble of starting a “campaign” Tumblr, which is where all the kids are hanging out these days, amirite? At the very least, folks might benefit from learning about the process of applying for a volunteer position like this at City Hall and telling that story might inform and inspire someone better than me to civic participation.
Barring all other qualifications, and disqualifications, when it comes to the Sunshine Ordinance, who better suited than a compulsive oversharer? Also, better an SOTF volunteer than, say, mayor, because as anyone who’s read this blog for a while knows, I’m openly in favor of more four-legged and two-wheeled transportation in San Francisco. So I’m sure you’d all rather have me debating the finer points of OpenOffice Document Format versus Microsoft Word than advocating for more bike- and mule-centric transportation planning.
Furthermore, I promise that if I do get embroiled in what I’m sure is an inevitable scandal, I will do my best to make sure that it’s a sexy one involving hookers and blow, or at least a hilariously inappropriate quote that all the blogs can run with, and not something boring like helping to cover up a tax giveaway to a developer or an arcane bit of parliamentary vengeance.
So there you go. I, Jackson West, am your oversharey candidate for the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force! In the words of Kamala Harris’s Facebook update, “Let’s get 2010 off to a great start. Have you endorsed our campaign yet?”