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Ethics Commission: Try, Try Again In Rewrite of Civil Grand Jury Response

by Larry Bush on 08/17/2011

in Busted

(Photo by Tony De Renzo for CitiReport)

The San Francisco Ethics Commission tried for a second time to craft a response to the Civil Grand Jury report that found them to be a “Sleeping Watchdog” at its August 8 session.

(See video of the first 90 minutes of the Ethics Commission meeting by clicking this link.

Public Comment begins at Minute 21:00 and the Commission discussion of the Civil Grand Jury report begins at Minute 45:30 and concludes at 1 hour, 9 minutes)

A month earlier, it asked that the Executive Director’s draft response be toned down from a harsh rebuttal to language that was less combative.

At its August meeting, the Commission went further by beginning to consider the substance of the Civil Grand Jury’s findings, ultimately moving by inches in the direction of its recommendations.

The session took place before a standing-room-only crowd, itself a departure from the usual handful of regulars who have attended past Ethics Commission meetings. The Commission agenda included discussion of the “Run Ed Run” issue, which accounted for a significant attendance.

Still, the Commission’s required opening for public comment lasted nearly 25 minutes as speaker after speaker offered sharp criticisms of the Ethics Commission’s record and staff handling of issues. Included were compelling cases of career city workers who told of losing their jobs as the Commission delayed action on pending cases for years.

Those remarks also clearly had an impact on the Commissioners, who took note that the Commission itself was facing doubts about its effectiveness in protecting the public trust.

What Commissioners Said

“One of the things that really surprised me,” noted Commissioner Beverly Hayon, appointed by Mayor Newsom in December, “is that we have cases that have been pending for months and even years. Frankly, I do not understand that.”

Echoing one public comment calling for the Commission’s actions to set a goal of “swift and efficient enforcement,” Hayon voiced her view that allegations should be “addressed as quickly and I might add as publicly as possible. Perception is reality.”

“We need a process that brings more of these complaints before the commission,” said Hayon. “I think these are really fundamental issues that we should grapple with as commission. I think there is a perception that too much goes on without a chance for the public” to be involved.

 

Commissioners called for a joint meeting with the Sunshine Ordinance members in response to the Civil Grand Jury’s finding that the Commission had rejected all 18 Sunshine Task Force findings forwarded for action.

“We did have a thoughtful meeting with the Sunshine Task Force two years ago,” Commissioner Studley noted. “I welcome the opportunity to meet with them again.” That sentiment was then supported by new Commissioner Dorothy Liu, and it became part of the direction to staff in redrafting the Commission’s response to the Grand Jury report.

A third finding – that the Commission policy of requiring two commissioners to agree to holding a public hearing on a complaint, judged to be responsible for operating too often out of public view and too often deferring to the Executive Director – resulted in commissioners asking for a redraft of the commission’s policy.

“I would like to put on the record that I encourage us to change the current rule that it takes two commissioners to agendize an item connection with a dismissal,” said Commissioner Charles Ward. “If one of us feels like it ought to be taken up, that should be enough.”

Ward also noted that a respondent who pleads that they cannot afford a fine, “They should come before the Commission and explain their reason why they can not pay the fine being levied.”

Although no names were mentioned, it has been observed in 2006 the Ethics Commission’s director knocked down a $414,000 fine against Andrew Lee to $17,000.  Commission staff claimed that Lee, whose public filings showed holdings worth more than $3.7 million, could not afford a larger fine.  Only former commissioner Eileen Hansen voted against the low fine.

Commission President Ben Hur concurred with Ward’s call for an open process when a claim is made that a fine is not affordable. “I agree that we should hear when someone says they can not pay a fine.”

Hur also stated his agreement with Ward that one commissioner asking for a hearing should be sufficient.

Commissioner Studley took it a step further, saying, “We might consider reversing our presumption, to say that it will be calendared unless we affirmatively vote that we do not need to hear it. I want to make it very clear that we are making the decisions.”

At that point, the commission decided to respond to the Civil Grand Jury by stating that they will revisit their policy and amend the process, without stating at this point how the amended process will operate.

Hur also endorsed the Civil Grand Jury finding that Ethics should move forward with its own investigation on complaints as soon as the 14 day waiting period is over.

“I am worried that a large part of the delay is waiting for the City Attorney or District Attorney to assert jurisdiction,” Hur said. “I think we should go forward as soon as the 14 day period is over.”

For the first time, commissioners expressed a strong interest in having its meetings televised.

Again, Commissioner Ward took the lead.

“I would be fully in favor of these meetings being televised, in doing what we can to see this is done.”

“I too would like to go on record,” noted Commissioner Hayon. “Really, these days, the issue of streaming video is something we should be doing. We could find a better way to use Facebook and social media.”

Commissioner Studley called for a new review of the costs involved.

“I would be in favor of us getting a cost estimate on doing this,” said Commissioner Studley. “The last time the cost estimates were significant enough that there was a meaningful difference. I would very much welcome another look at the situation.”

Commissioner Liu also spoke in favor of considering the cost involved.

The discussion on the Civil Grand Jury response ended with a motion to accept a rewritten version that “reflects the conversation we’ve had,” then passed.

In other developments, following closed session, the Commission heard the Executive Director’s report.

Executive Director John St. Croix complained that Larry Bush had won a change in the Ballot Simplification Committee’s description of the November ballot measure that came from the Ethics Commission.

St. Croix complained that Bush (CitiReport’s Bush, author of this post) had introduced changes that complicated the issue, but also said that the Commission could not speak in favor of its measure now that it is on the ballot.

The change was that the voters are now told that passing the measure means that the Ethics Commission can make any other changes that suit it in future without recourse to the voters.

Following St. Croix’s presentation, David Pilpel, a member of the public who also serves on the Redistricting Task Force, asked the commission for materials that can support the Commission’s views to be given at various meeting, and also expressed his strong support for St. Croix’s performance.

 

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