[This is the third in a series on the current situation at the San Francisco Ethics Commission. It will be followed with several “case studies” examining specific Ethics Commission actions]
San Francisco is one of five California communities, along with San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Clara and Oakland, with an ethics oversight commission. The State of California acts on ethics concerns through the Fair Political Practices Commission.
The other commissions, which vary in budget and staff size, have one thing in common: strong enforcement, public disclosure and transparent records, unlike that of San Francisco’s. None have been sued for dereliction of its duties or forced to pay court costs as a result as has San Francisco.
In 2010, retired attorney and Sunshine activist Alan Grossman filed suit to force the San Francisco Ethics Commission to release some of its own records. and won a $24,900 settlement.
San Francisco’s refusal to release records of pending cases is in sharp contract to the Fair Political Practices Commission which posts in its agenda all pending settlements before the Commission acts on them, as well as a separate list of complaints filed. The state agency cites a court decision that holds these are not confidential documents and regards an earlier policy of withholding documents as a misapplication and misinterpretation of the California Public Records Act. San Francisco retains the earlier interpretation and policy.
Other jurisdictions require that unions, nonprofit organizations and attorneys register as lobbyists. Los Angeles union representatives register and file reports of their contacts once discussions move past collective bargaining sessions and into the offices of the mayor and city council. Attorneys advocating for clients must register and report their contacts file except when acting in a capacity that actually requires admission to the bar.
Los Angeles also closed a loophole that has been controversial in San Francisco when it wrote its law to cover those who are paid to give advice and strategy aimed at influencing city decisions but who do not actually contact city officials. Thus former elected officials who are barred from contacting their former colleagues in a “time-out” period also can not be paid to advise on how to negotiate an outcome to benefit a client.
San Diego recognizes the its citizen commissioners have significant time constraints so its Ethics Commission contracts with the State’s Office of Administrative Hearings for an Administrative Law Judge to conduct hearings for the Commission. This helps to avoid the problems that have delayed and plagued San Francisco’s process. In San Francisco, although the Commission has the authority to obtain outside counsel, it instead relies on the City Attorney where there are conflict of interest issues because of the political involvement of assistant city attorneys. It conducts its own hearings, sometimes taking months to establish ground rules before initiating a hearing.
San Diego has a record of acting on conflict of interest complaints, levying a $32,000 fine for failing to report one official’s investment in a Lennar-related business. In Los Angeles, the Ethics Commission has taken 102 enforcement actions and levied $952,523.05 in fines for money laundering since the Commission began in 1993.
San Francisco has never acted on a conflict of interest or money laundering case.
In Los Angeles, the Ethics Commission is pro-active in taking on cases, not waiting for a complaint to be filed. It issues a “Public Accusation” that names the alleged violator, the type of violation and when and how it reportedly took place.
In San Francisco, the Commission has no record of initiating its own complaints and does not make a “Public Accusation” as does Los Angeles.
[Next: a case study of the Ethics Commission mishandling of apparent criminal violations in the City College case]