A motion by reform-minded supervisors to name Allen Grossman, a respected advocate of government transparency, to the Ethics Commission failed on a 8-3 vote Tuesday. Supervisor Eric Mar made the motion to substitute Grossman for the Rules Committee’s pick of Dorothy Liu was seconded by Supervisor John Avalos and backed by Supervisor Ross Mirikarimi. The three praised Grossman as an independent who would follow in the footsteps of former commissioner Joe Lynn and outgoing commissioner Eileen Hansen, both considered strong advocates of an effective commission.
For the past decade, there has been at least one Ethics Commission member versed in the city’s good government laws and who played a watchdog role on the commission. They have included Bob Dockendorff, Paul Melbostad, Joe Julian, Joe Lynn and most recently Eileen Hansen. The selection of Liu leaves the Commission without an advocate with a proven record on behalf of ethics and transparency.
Liu, in contrast, was praised by Board President David Chiu as a candidate who has no experience with City Hall or the city’s political community and as a result “is the perfect candidate.” Records show that Liu has made only one political contribution — which was last year for $100 to David Chiu for his campaign for the Democratic County Central Committee.
Liu is an attorney at Hanson Bridgett, which has made political contributions to the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), whose lobbying and campaign activity falls under the scrutiny of the Ethics Commission.
Chiu also emphasized that Liu had promised to regularly consult with the Board of Supervisors regarding issues before the Ethics Commission. The Board’s appointee is designated by the charter to represent the public although appointed by the Board.
This year the Ethics Commission is seeking a number of changes that will bear on the electoral prospects for Board members, including whether they can begin to accept campaign contributions from those seeking contracts at Treasure Island, Redevelopment or similar agencies; changing the rules affecting the political consultants hired by officeholders and office seekers, and whether elected officials and candidates can accept contributions from members of boards of directors of nonprofits receiving city grants. Liu has been actively involved with the Chinatown Community Development Center, one of the nonprofits whose Board members currently are prohibited from contributing to candidates for the Board of Supervisors or other elected positions.
The Ethics Commission also will seek Board approval to delay public disclosure of travel expenses paid by outside groups for supervisors and ranking city officials until after the trips begin. Recently there was a controversy over travel expenses paid by a group linked to Rose Pak, the Chinatown influence wielder, for Board President David Chiu and others.
Privately, some Board members sought assurances that the Board’s appointee would vote for an ethics waiver to allow interim Mayor Ed Lee to return to his post as Chief Administrative Officer. The effort to pre-determine the outcome of a key Ethics vote before approving a nominee is unprecedented in the experience of long-time observers of the Ethics Commission. It bears some resemblance to the effort of anti-abortion groups to secure private commitments in a litmus test for judicial nominees.
in a little-noted aspect of Lee’s status as an interim mayor, a new mayor elected in November might be able to take office immediately rather than wait until the traditional January inauguration.
Lee is not expected to have difficulty obtaining support for an Ethics waiver, which requires four of five Ethics Commissioners to move it to the full Board. However, for political reasons, some Board members wanted a guarantee that the waiver would be supported unanimously.
Liu also won vocal support from Supervisor Scott Weiner who complained that unnamed blogs had unfairly suggested that the Liu’s selection would rubberstamp an Ethics Commission that has been bent on repealing ethics safeguards. During roll call, Weiner proceeded to introduce a ballot measure to repeal voter approval of future rewrites of the city’s ethics law on political consultants. Weiner said he was acting at the suggestion of the Ethics Commission.
The political consultant requirements was authored by former supervisor Tom Ammiano who obtained signatures from three colleagues to put the ethics requirement before voters. The measure passed handily, although political consultants joined together to spend over $100,000 to try to defeat it. The majority of Board members at the time declined to support Ammiano’s ethics proposal, and it was earlier vetoed by then-mayor Willie Brown.
In a move that surprised Grossman’s supporters, Supervisor David Campos spoke in favor of opening the Ethics Commission to greater public transparency through such steps as televising commission meetings, something strongly supported by Grossman but that failed to win Liu’s support, but then voted in favor of Liu’s appointment.
After the Grossman motion failed, the Board then voted to name Liu as its appointment to the Ethics Commission on a 10-1 vote, with Supervisor Avalos voting no on the motion.
The Board’s action in approving a nominee who will require on-the-job training to understand the responsibilities of the Ethics Commission is taken as a harbinger that the current Board majority will be a rubber stamp for a commission fraught with mismanagement and cronyism toward the city’s powerful political players and interests.
During the Rules Committee hearing, Liu said that she believed that lawyers do not have to register as lobbyist when they represent clients seeking to influence City Hall decision. Liu, an attorney, specifically mentioned as one example former mayor Willie Brown whose status as an unregistered lobbyist drew editorial comment at the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
Liu appeared unaware that under California law, attorneys have been required to register since 1970 as lobbyists when contacting city officials on behalf of a client in matters that do not require admission to the bar.
Liu also told the Rules Committee that she is not prepared to support televising the Ethics Commission proceedings on the city channel out of deference to the sensitivity of those who appear before the Commission.