Sunshine over City Hall.
Sunshine over City Hall.

“Light and liberty go together,” Thomas Jefferson wrote. From its very outset, the American experiment in democratic self-government has acknowledged that its success depends on people’s right to know what their government is doing.

The San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance

San Francisco’s Sunshine Ordinance reflects the abiding imperative of open government with local enhancements to state and federal guarantees “to assure that the people of the City remain in control of the government they have created.” (S.F. Admin. Code § 67.1(f))  Originally enacted in 1999, the Sunshine Ordinance expands public access to local government meetings, information and records, and authorizes groundbreaking innovations to better implement and more stringently enforce open government policies.

The City Attorney’s roles on Sunshine

The City Attorney’s Office is proud to play a number of important roles to fulfill the promise of Sunshine and open government in San Francisco:

  • As the legal counsel to city government, the City Attorney routinely advises clients, and publishes informational memos and guidelines on open government responsibilities. (S.F. Charter § 6.102 and S.F. Admin. Code § 67.21(i))
  • The City Attorney is specifically tasked by the Sunshine Ordinance to protect the people’s right to access public information and meetings, and the office provides Sunshine training sessions and resources. (S.F. Admin. Code § 67.21(i))
  • The City Attorney is the designated “Supervisor of Records,” to adjudicate Sunshine Appeals from members of the public when the government records they seek are withheld by city officials or agencies. (S.F. Admin. Code §§ 67.20(c) and 67.21(d))
  • The City Attorney’s Supervisor of Records role determines whether disputed records are public; and works to facilitate (or even order) compliance with requests for records that were improperly withheld. (S.F. Admin. Code § 67.21(d))
  • The City Attorney’s Supervisor of Records function is also authorized to refer defiant city respondents to prosecutors; and to take all steps “necessary and appropriate to insure compliance” with the ordinance. (S.F. Admin. Code § 67.21(d))
  • The City Attorney is legal counsel to the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, which has broad advisory duties and authority much like that of the Supervisor of Records to determine whether records are public. (S.F. Admin. Code §§ 67.21(e)) and 67.30)

Sunshine requests to the City Attorney’s Office

It’s easy to submit a Sunshine request for records in the custody of the City Attorney’s Office by emailing the office at: cityattorney@sfcityatty.org. No specific form is required, and legal citations aren’t necessary.  In fact, Sunshine requests don’t even need to be written.  Anyone can make a public records request orally, in person or over the phone (though written requests are often preferable, to avoid confusion or misinterpretation.)

What to know about City Attorney records

It may seem paradoxical, given the City Attorney’s many duties to protect Sunshine, that the office also has some of city government’s most complex obligations to protect privacy and confidential information, where the law requires.  But it’s really no paradox: both duties are manifest in the City Attorney’s role as legal counsel to San Francisco’s local government. When making a Sunshine request to the City Attorney’s Office, in fact, it may be helpful to know in advance that legal restrictions apply to many City Attorney records.

Attorney-Client Privilege

  • One common prohibition from disclosure is called “attorney-client privilege,” which refers to communications from lawyers to their clients concerning law-making, litigation and other legal matters.  Multiple provisions of state and local law exempt attorney-client communications from disclosure (see: S.F. Admin. Code §67.21(k); Cal. Gov’t Code §6254(k); and Cal. Evidence Code §954).  For lawyers, in fact, the attorney-client privilege is non-discretionary.  Clients alone hold the privilege, in the private and public spheres alike, and attorneys have no authority to waive it.

Attorney Work Product

  • Another category of records subject to withholding is called “Attorney Work Product,” which refers to writings “that reflect an attorney’s impressions, conclusions, opinion, or legal research or theories.”  These records are exempt from disclosure under: S.F. Admin. Code §67.21(k); Cal. Gov’t Code §6254(k); Cal. Code of Civil Pro. §2018.030; and Cal. Gov’t Code §6276 and §6276.04.