CitiReport arranged for the Ethics Commission meeting to be videotaped at CitiReport’s cost as a public service and is posted on Youtube.com at http://youtu.be/HPB2ZNRx8T4
The San Francisco Ethics Commission unanimously voted at its July 11 meeting to send Mayor Ed Lee a letter urging him to remove Library Commission President Jewelle Gomez following its first-ever hearing on a Sunshine Act violation.
After watching a video of a June 4, 2009 Library Commission hearing, Ethics Commissioners tossed aside the staff report on Gomez that they lacked jurisdiction to act themselves and instead substituted a letter to the mayor recommending the mayor remove Gomez from office.
In an unintentional irony, the Ethics Commissioners who had just relied on a videotape as the basis for their conclusion later heard their staff claim that Ethics own meetings should not be televised or videotaped because of cost considerations.
At issue in the Gomez case was a complaint that Gomez had refused to allow public testimony from Sue Cauthern at a specific public comment time during a June 2009 Library Commission meeting. Cauthern, a member of the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, filed a complaint with the Task Force and then recused herself. Over the next six months, the Library failed to send a representative to hearings set three different times by the Sunshine Task Force.
On December 1, 2009, the Sunshine Task Force referred its finding of a violation of the law to Ethics, which had the matter under consideration for 20 months.
Ethics hearing on the Sunshine complaint came the same night it also took up its response to the Civil Grand Jury faulting Ethics for its failure to take up any Sunshine Act referrals over the past 16 years while rejecting 18 requests for action from the Sunshine Task Force.
At the Ethics Commission meeting, City Librarian Luis Herrera spoke in support of his Commission President, pointing to Gomez’ service as a benefit to the community. Gomez is an award-winning author and poet who writes from her experience as an African American lesbian. She was first appointed to the Library Commission by Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2005.
The Ethics Commission staff report concluded that Gomez had violated the law requiring public comment but also concluded that the law did not apply to the Commission President presiding over the meeting.
That conclusion was based on its view that Gomez did not fit the narrow category of an “elected official, department head or managerial employee” and so therefore the law does not apply to her.
The staff report also concluded that even if the law applied to commissioners, it could not be enforced because the Ethics Commission itself failed to incorporate them in its penalty provisions.
Commissioners appeared to be surprised that the law left a loophole that exempts all city commissioners from the requirement that they allow public comment at their commission meetings, as well as its staff failure to include commissioners as subject to penalties, but accepted the staff interpretation that the result is that they lack jurisdiction.
Several members of the public strongly chastised the Ethics Commission for failing to understand the law and addressing any loopholes during earlier years.
Ethics Determines Checkbooks Can Snap Open
The Ethics Commission also quickly embraced the view of business community leaders and consultants that it rewrite the campaign spending law with Amendments to allow special interest campaign expenditures to rise without allowing candidates the authority to receive additional public funds in response.
The result has potentially significant impact on this year’s mayor’s contest and comes just two weeks after a U.S. Supreme Court decision that voided an Arizona law that actually is not the same as the San Francisco law.
The Commission’s action, by a 4-1 vote, sends a request to the Board of Supervisors to amend the city’s law, opening the door for unlimited special interest spending while closing a door for candidates impacted by the outside spending.
The Commission took up the issue without consulting with campaign law experts such as the Center for Government Studies that had filed a brief in the Supreme Court case. The Ethics Commission appeared unfamiliar with the Center or its Executive Director, Bob Stern, who authored California’s landmark campaign law.
Stern’s organization currently is drafting a model reform that would meet the new constitutional test while holding intact protections for candidates targeted by special interest funding.
Charles Marsteller, past head of San Francisco’s Common Cause and a longtime advocate for ethics reform, told the Commission that Stern was aware of San Francisco’s law and was working on a draft that could be made available to the Commission. However, Ethics Commissioners decided not to wait for his input although some said that under some circumstances they might ask for the Board to return the proposal to the Commission.
Instead, the Commission heard from representatives from the Building Owners and Managers (BOMA), Committee on JOBS and the law office of James Sutton who warned they would consider suing the city to overturn provisions that allowed them free rein to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money while holding candidates to strict limits.
In closed session, the Commission considered issues related to the campaign finance reform and, in later discussion, it appeared that they received a letter from campaign attorney James Sutton indicating he might sue to overturn the current law.
The existing law is intended to allow candidates to balance the impact of outside spending by raising more contributions than are normally allowed to candidates who accept partial public funding.
In the November supervisor election, outside special interest raised close to $500,000 to help favored candidates or to defeat others. Supervisor Scott Weiner and Supervisor Mark Farrell were the leading beneficiaries, with outside spending to boost their chances totaling well over $250,000. In some cases, individual donors contributed as much as $100,000 although direct contributions to candidates is capped at $500.
The Arizona law overturned by the Supreme Court is not identical to the San Francisco law, as the Commission staff report noted.
Liu Asks for “Run Ed Run” Discussion at Next Meeting
In what may be a closely related development, new Ethics Commissioner Dorothy Liu asked that the August 9 Commission meeting discuss the “Run Ed Run” campaign co-chaired by Gordon Chin, head of the Chinatown Community Development Center. August 12 is the deadline for candidates, including a potential Ed Lee candidacy, to file with the Elections Department.
Chin’s role, including funding his organization has received from Mayor Lee’s office, was the subject of a previous CitiReport account.
Liu’s application to the Board for appointment to the Ethics Commission noted her partnership with the Chinatown Community Development Center as an important element in her community activity and her work with Hanson Bridgett, the law firm that employs her.
Her firm is also a contributor to BOMA, one of the groups seeking to overturn San Francisco’s ethics law, and the firm was recently named as the lead local law firm for the America’s Cup committee. The Ethics Commission recently waived post-employment restrictions to allow a mayoral staffer to head the America’s Cup committee. Liu voted in favor of that waiver.
Sleeping Watchdog Response Begun
The Commission started but postponed further discussion on its Response to the Civil Grand Jury report, Sleeping Watchdog, which recommended a series of changes aimed at improving public accountability and transparency.
The staff report’s tone came under criticism from the Commissioners who pointed to sections that appeared unnecessarily confrontational and hostile.
In the staff report, the Civil Grand Jury’s work was described as “a politicized view” that lacked objectivity.
The staff report recommended rejecting outright five of the seven Civil Grand Jury findings, including the recommendation that the Commission’s meetings be televised. The staff claimed that televising Ethics meetings would mean dropping coverage for another commission, add to Ethics Commission costs, and mean less funding for staff. However, the staff report did not provide the Commission with any support for these contentions.
Commissioners asked for further information on televising Commission meetings.
The Commissioners appeared ready to accept several staff recommended responses, including rejecting a proposal that the appointments to the Commission be changed to reduce political influence on the Commission, using a fixed fine structure for all enforcement actions, and to accept the Grand Jury recommendations that improvements be made to its data base and that it initiate investigations without undue delay waiting for action by the City Attorney or District Attorney.
Public testimony included sharp criticism from one political consultant who denounced the Civil Grand Jury for failing to consult with the Ethics Commission’s “customers” who he identified as the political consultants who are regulated by the commission.
A further response will be calendared for the August 9 Commission meeting.