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Closing the door on open government

(This post originally appeared HERE in Voice of San Diego.)

SAN DIEGO -- Mayor Bob Filner’s formal push for government transparency appears all but dead with the departure of the two officials leading the effort.

As a candidate, Filner pledged to create an atmosphere of openness at City Hall with regular office hours and greater access to details on government happenings. Central to those plans was the open government department, a mayoral division Filner said would ensure residents get easy access to city documents and details on the workings of city government.

But former Councilwoman Donna Frye, who Filner tapped to lead the effort, abruptly left the job on April 2, just three months after Filner took office. Deputy Open Government Director Steve Hadley left a few weeks later, according to documents obtained by Voice of San Diego in a public records request.

Frye, who typically doesn’t shy from media attention, did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the circumstances of the departure or the future of the city’s open government efforts. Hadley declined to comment.

Frye and Hadley were two of at least 11 senior-level or mayoral staffers who have left their jobs since Filner took office in December.

Frye’s appointment had generated criticisms from former mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio and Councilman Scott Sherman because Filner wanted to change a city rule to allow Frye to hold the permanent post. City rules prohibit city retirees who collect a pension from working for the city for more than 90 days and Frye, a former councilwoman, collects one.

Immediately after she left her city post, Frye told KPBS that the pension issue was not behind her departure and said she planned to focus on a volunteer position with Californians Aware, a nonprofit that advocates for government transparency.

Her departure, and Hadley’s, complicates the mayor’s ability to follow through on specific promises he made on the campaign trail.

Filner had pledged to publish his schedules, policies and memos. He also said residents and reporters should have easy access to information, and an advocate in the mayor’s office.

“The mayor’s office has a responsibility to ensure the public has an opportunity to obtain information and participate in government decision making so that they have faith in our government,” Filner said in a July 2012 Voice of San Diego survey. “Otherwise, any decision made becomes suspect and the public loses trust.”

Thus far, the only progress on those campaign pledges appears to be in the mayor’s monthly office hours at City Hall — short of the three per month he initially proposed — and an open government page on the city’s website. The site provides access to documents the city must share by law, as well as links to public notices and agendas.

But the mayor hasn’t posted his public schedule or memos or said whether he will in the future, and his office is now missing staffers whose sole responsibility is ensuring the city acts transparently.

Irene McCormack, a spokeswoman for Filner, said the mayor remains focused on those goals and plans to hire a new director of open government.

She couldn’t provide details on whether the mayor is already searching for a replacement or how the department might change following Frye’s departure.

The mayor’s initial proposed budget included about $105,000 for an open government director. His revised budget released this week includes an extra $71,375 to make the position permanent (there were restrictions on Frye’s work schedule).

The proposals don’t offer specifics on the future of the open government department or details on its key initiatives.

Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at lisa.halverstadt@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0528.