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CitiReport Asks the Candidates Questions: Not Your Usual Questions, Not Your Usual Answers

by Larry Bush on 08/25/2011

in Paper Trails

CitiReport surveyed 11 major mayoral candidates on a range of issues involving ethics and public accountability, receiving responses that surfaced new campaign promises and strong criticism for the city’s Ethics Commission.

You can read the questionnaire responses from seven candidates. Four candidates, including Mayor Ed Lee, gave no response to CitiReport, including no acknowledgement of CitiReport’s request. More on that below (the other three were Phil Ting, Michela Alioto-Pier and Joanna Rees).

The seven candidates willing to go on record regarding ethics issues were: Public Defender Jeff Adachi, Supervisor John Avalos, Board President David Chiu, former supervisor Bevan Dufty, former supervisor Tony Hall, City Attorney Dennis Herrera and State Senator Leland Yee.

We Had Questions

CitiReport drew its 10 questions from recent Civil Grand Jury reports on Ethics and the city’s Whistleblower program, two ballot measures that give Ethics or the Board power to rewrite voter-passed measures, and CitiReport’s earlier reviews of city commissioner attendance and compliance with sunshine laws and financial disclosures.

All seven candidates endorsed stronger protection for whistleblowers, including against retaliation, as recommended by the Civil Grand Jury. All seven endorsed televising the Ethics Commission meetings, as recommended by the Civil Grand Jury, which the Ethics Commission has opposed in the past and only now is reluctantly stating they will consider it within their budget. Dufty noted the Commission might reach the “same high ratings enjoyed by the old Taxi Commission!”

CitiReport also asked about the failure of such high-profile power brokers as former Mayor Willie Brown and Rose Pak to register as lobbyists and disclose their City Hall contacts and clients.

None of the candidates named Brown or Pak in their responses. Several candidates recognized that the recent rewrite of the city’s lobbyist law had weakened public disclosure and accountability, and committed to action that would correct that and go further. Other candidates were less familiar with the law and less specific about any future changes. Board President Chiu noted that he had a large role in passing the current version, but did not comment on whether it is now weaker as a result.

Ethics Proposal: “Naive, Disingenuous”

None of the seven candidates endorsed the Ethics Commission’s proposal to exempt from pay-to-play laws contractors at Redevelopment, Treasure Island and other “state” entities.

“The idea that the Mayor is not aware of who the contractors are is at best naïve and at worst disingenuous,” wrote Supervisor Avalos.

“Wherever legitimate questions may exist about contractors unduly influencing public decisions in exchange for campaign contributions, our guiding principles compel tighter restrictions, not looser ones,” responded City Attorney Dennis Herrera.

The City Attorney raised concerns in this response that the laws be evenly enforced by the Ethics Commission, noting the recent decision regarding “Progress for All,” the Run Ed Run committee funded largely by city contractors who otherwise would be prohibited from making contributions.

“But, again, tougher reforms can only work if the Ethics Commission makes sure they are evenly applied, rigorously enforced, and that they don’t unintentionally reward dubious committee schemes like “Progress for All,” which manage to do an end run around the campaign finance laws that other candidates adhere to,” added Herrera.

Former Supervisor Tony Hall who served as head of the city’s Treasure Island development efforts, may have been in the best position because of his inside role to comment on whether the city’s elected officials know about contracts and contractors.

Hall did not dance around the issue.

“This only opens the door for more corruption,” wrote Hall. “The mayor and the members of the Board all know who the contractors and lobbyists are. They are only trying to fool the public with this one, as most of them only hold office because of the contributions by the contractors and lobbyists.”

Make Law Stronger?

CitiReport also asked about strengthening the pay-to-play law, including potentially restoring the stronger terms of the original Proposition J from the November 2000 election. That law was weakened considerably in a so-called “clean–up” measure in the 2004 election.

Currently the ban only prohibits direct contributions and then only applies it to those in negotiations for a city contract or lease and for the six months following the signing of the agreement.

The 2004 “clean-up” removed the pay-to-play ban for those who obtained a land use variance, franchise, special tax benefit or monetary payment, and applied it to gifts, job offers and payments in addition to contracts. It also applied the ban for two years after the official’s term of office ended or six years after the approval.

In addition, the current law banning contractor contributions does not prohibit city contractors from soliciting contributions from others, bundling contributions or serving as the intermediary for contributions.  It also does not prohibit contractors from contributing to independent expenditure or other non-candidate committee that are intended to support or oppose a candidate.

Finally, in the 14 years since the measure was first passed, the law has never been enforced in any of its variations.

All seven candidates voiced support for actions to bring the city’s pay-to-play law closer to the Proposition J provisions, stating they would either introduce such a measure as mayor or would reach out to craft a current version.  In their questionnaires, you will find some nuances, as Board President Chiu states he is “open” to such an effort, and City Attorney Herrera takes the issue a step further to state it must include stronger enforcement.

“Sleeping Watchdog?”

Asked if they believed the finding of the Civil Grand Jury that the Ethics Commission is a “sleeping watchdog,” all either stated unambiguously that they did or offered criticisms and called for action to improve its performance.

Former Supervisor Tony Hall is the only candidate who faced a public hearing on a complaint against him, and his answer to this question makes for a “telling truth to power” moment worth reading in itself.

Others termed the Commission “weak and unaccountable,” “inadequate” and “hard-wired” to do less than it should and a “starving watchdog,” raised the issue of uneven enforcement, or called for it to be restructured.

If a letter grade were given, it would fall somewhere between “F” and C-“ among these candidates.

Scofflaw Appointees: Out the Door

CitiReport asked about steps the candidates would take as mayor to ensure appointees complied with attendance standards for commissioners and disclosure of financial conflicts, as well as general transparency.

The issue, which is a significant indicator of the ability to manage the city, is one where Mayor Ed Lee earns a failing grade. He has allowed some mayoral appointees to miss meetings for months on end, fail to file required disclosure statements after repeated warning letters and even after referral for enforcement action, and taken no steps to ensure compliance with the city’s Sunshine Ordinance. His claim to have introduced increased “civility” masks, at least in this regard, the “go along to get along” attitude that prevails among the City Hall insiders.

Former Supervisor Dufty came out strongly in favor of additional steps on compliance with filing requirements, including mandatory training that exceeds the current on-line viewing option and expanding it to include all nonprofits with city contracts that exceed $100,000.

State Senator Yee noted that the Ethics Commission only recently discovered that the Sunshine Law does not include city commissioners and called for the loophole to be closed, something that Ethics or the current Mayor have not suggested.

City Attorney Herrera revealed that as city attorney he has had to push city officials to comply with Sunshine requests, and outlined the solution he would put into place as mayor.

“One of the observations my office has made from this role is that the most significant obstacles to transparency among City departments are bureaucratic inefficiency, institutional indifference and a belief—often correct—that there are no adverse consequences for ignoring the Sunshine Ordinance,” wrote Herrera.

“That’s why, as Mayor, I will assign the role of “Sunshine Ombudsman” to a member of my staff who is directly answerable to me on Sunshine and open government issues. This ombudsman will serve as the pointof contact for members of the public and news media who encounter obstacles to open government. Under the imprimatur of the Mayor, this role can directly address and break down organizational barriers in executive departments citywide. It wouldn’t need to replace anything already in existence to protect or expand open government, but it would formalize the role of internal, go-to advocate for citizens and journalists to elevate the urgency of their records requests within local government. And it would make the Mayor more directly accountable for government openness,” stated Herrera.

Other candidates said they would make examples of scofflaws in their administration and ask for resignations.

E&F: 2 Yes, 5 No

On two ballot measures dealing with voter-approved laws – the Campaign Consultant law and allowing the Board to rewrite voter-approved measures – only Chiu and Dufty said they would vote in favor. All the others indicated they will vote against the measures, with Herrera noting that as City Attorney he can not make endorsements but publicly stating how he plans to vote.

CitiReport asked each candidate to explain what steps they have taken to improve the ethics policies at City Hall. Those answers are the final part of the questionnaire.

Several candidates used the questionnaire to more fully outline their position on a variety of good government laws, and CitiReport believes these responses are the most comprehensive view to date into the attitudes and commitments of mayoral candidates


Avalos Questionnaire


Dufty Questionnaire


Herrera CitiReport

Yee Questionnaire

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