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Ed Lee, Genius

by Larry Bush on 10/19/2011

in Paper Trails

Ed Lee, Genius

It’s been said that the difference between talent and genius is that talent borrows for others, while genius steals.

This week, Ed Lee tried to steal one, and depending on how you look at it, the plan he unveiled to city commissioners was either stolen from the Board of Supervisors’s measure passed in 2006 by then-Supervisor Tom Ammiano and Sean Elsbernd, or he stole it from then-Mayor Gavin Newsom’s 2006 directive to commissioners, or he stole it from City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s Guide to Good Government put out in January 2010.

The genius was that Lee’s proposal didn’t just steal an existing prolicy and proclaim it as his own, but his policy dumbs down and waters down the city’s policy regarding attendance by commissioners and board members.

In an email to city commissions reported by the San Francisco Examiner on October 13, the mayor’s office announces that beginning in the current quarter, attendance records of mayoral appointees and posting them on the mayor’s web site.

“Beginning this fiscal year, the Mayor will be tracking attendance for mayoral appointees on a quarterly basis and then posting those records on the Mayor’s website for the public’s review.

In fact, that is a marked improvement over the past. Kudos on that.

But keeping attendance records is something the mayor’s office is supposed to have done beginning in 2007.

And while a public exposure of attendance – which can be pretty spotty in some cases – may cause a blush, it’s a far cry from being ousted for official misconduct as a result of poor attendance, which is possible according to the City Attorney.

In May, the mayor’s office admitted in response to an Immediate Disclosure Request that it had no records on attendance, despite then-Mayor Newsom’s policy that attendance records be forwarded to his office at the end of each fiscal year.

Mayor Lee felt free to ignore Newsom’s policy signed September 18, 2006, as Lee’s office confirmed in an email to CitiReport.

“Former Mayor Newsom’s policy is not a formal policy that the Lee Administration follows, “ wrote Chritine Falvey, Lee’s press secretary. “however, much the standards outlined in his memo are standards that we hold our commissioner to, informally.”

Consequences: not so much, when it comes to missing lots of meetings. A commissioner can expect a friendly chat with a colleague from the commission, but nothing more.

This is somewhat – actually,  a lot – looser than how City Attorney Dennis Herrera explained it in his Guide to Good Government given to all city commissioners and officials.

Dennis Herrera spells it out:

“Attending meetings is a fundamental part of a commissioner’s duties. Repeated failure of for-cause commissioners to attend meetings could constitute official misconduct, which could lead to removal from the commission. Further, failing to attend meetings over a period of time could result in a finding that a commissioner has abandoned the position, causing the removal of the commissioner. San Francisco Administrative Code § 16.89‐17 (hereafter “Admin. Code”).

So it is actually the law, and not an option.

Herrera further advises city commissioners in the Guide that “It is important that members of boards and commissions regularly attend meetings not only so that they may contribute to the work of the body but also to assure that a quorum is present so that meetings may be held. To address these concerns, the Office of the Mayor has issued standards for commissioner attendance and the Board of Supervisors has passed a resolution urging boards and commissions to adopt internal policies regarding members’ attendance at meetings. Both of these documents are included in the Appendix to this Guide.”

So what explains Lee’s actions? Um, could it be that voters are casting ballots right now, even as you read this. Or even as you read the news story that claims Lee is “cracking down” on commission attendance.

Ed Lee Gets It Done…late, stolen from others, but promises something will be done.


We can neither confirm nor deny…

That Rose Pak helped draft Ed Lee’s press release on the anniversary of the Loma Prieta Earthquake that came out on October 17.

Like every anniversary of the 1989 earthquake, it was an opportunity to remind residents and businesses of the need to prepare for any future disasters.

It also was an opportunity to invigorate the public spirit that the City has done much as a result of Loma Prieta.

“We have come a long way since1989,” is how the mayor’s press release puts it.

“Our commitment can be seen from projects like building a new Public Safety Building and Fire Station in Mission Bay, to retrofitting our emergency water supply system, or watching as the new SF General starts to take shape.

It drones on with praising the voters for approving various proposals, running down a list of bond and other measures.

But what didn’t make the list was the Embarcadero Freeway tear-down, a decision that caused a major showdown between then-mayor Art Agnos and his supporter Rose Pak, who mobilized an effort to convince the Board of Supervisors to reject Agnos’ plan. She failed when the vote was 6-5 in favor of Agnos’ proposal to demolish the freeway that had scarred the city’s waterfront for decades.

Lee’s ties with Pak have led many to wonder what he would have done if he were mayor – open up the waterfront for the benefit of the city, or sided with Rose Pak for a narrow advantage she sought.

Hint: it’s the tear down that dare not speak its name in Ed Lee’s City Hall.


The Never Ending Story

It seems like our city’s Ethics Commission is some kind of perpetual motion machine, only in their case the motion is to constantly go into reverse.

On Wednesday the Commission will take up staff recommendations that slip major changes into San Francisco’s campaign reporting laws – and each one will result in less public information, bigger loopholes, and even set up a special kitty for campaign lawyers.

Rapidly earning the label of “collaborationist” with the very folks they are supposed to monitor and hold accountable, the proposals include:

  • Ending 24-hour reporting in the last 16 days before the election and replacing them with staggered dates for disclosures. The only 24-hour public notices begin on the Wednesday before Election day (note to file: that would be AFTER the deadline for such weeklies as the Bay Guardian and SFWeekly).
  • Opening a back door to allow raising the spending cap for publicly funded candidates by creating an exemption for “compliance” costs worth as much as $147,500 for mayoral candidates. This would be a ten percent increase in spending by simply not counting it as spending.
  • Making a second try, after the Board of Supervisors kicked back this same change in 2009, to limit disclosures by General Purpose Committees before elections. The impact is that there would not have to be reporting on polling not used for an independent expenditure, electioneering communications, membership communications, and anything else relevant to elections.
  • Eliminating the requirement to disclose the name of contributors to electioneering communications, so that only expenditures are reported. Instead the name of those who funded the electioneering material won’t be reported until after the election is over. The requirement that contributors be disclosed came after a group called the California Urban Issues made electioneering efforts in 2003 praising Newsom and critical of candidate Matt Gonzalez and didn’t have to disclose who funded it. The Board closed the loophole in 2004 and now Ethics wants it opened again.
  • Allow candidates to spend campaign funds on ballot arguments in the Voter Information Pamphlet, This would allow candidates to spend campaign funds to influence other elections, including measures offered by those they oppose.
  • Allow candidates to use campaign funds to attend charitable fundraisers, which often are thinly veiled interest group efforts. Picture spending $1,000 to attend the fundraiser for the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. Ethics does not set any limit on how much candidates can spend for this purpose. It overturns the rule that candidate funds have to be spent on the candidacy of the candidate.

So are there are any proposals to provide the public with more information on the flow of money in our campaigns, or make information more accessible, or more timely?

Nary at one. Need you have asked?

So what black box held these proposals and how did they get before the commission? This is the result of the “interested person” process that fails to include any outreach but has Ethics passively wait to be contacted by the public and community groups asking for updates on things in process.

Naturally, the ones who participate are the paid representatives of business organizations and campaign professionals.

If that’s not enough for their agenda, Ethics also will revisit plans to shape San Francisco’s public finance program following the Supreme Court decision on the Arizona case. Supervisor Jane Kim has offered an approach that raises the public financing cap so that a conflict becomes highly unlikely.

The Commission may be asked to conduct a more thorough outreach to the community and advocates of public financing, similar to that undertaken in other communities but that has not happened in San Francisco.

One reason they face this agenda a second time is because they didn’t do any outreach the first time, and added to the problem by jamming it into an agenda already full with other issues.

Some things never change over there.


Way Down South.

How do things get handled elsewhere on allegations of money laundering, similar to the claim of Lorrie’s Airport Service donations to the Ed Lee campaign?

We have a contrasting example from Los Angeles, which served as the example for drafting San Francisco’s own Ethics Commission.

On October 13, the Los Angeles Ethics Commission voted a $183,750 fine against a local real estate developer for $18,000 in contributions through his employees.

“These types of transgressions create effects in the elections that cannot be undone. For those reasons … we are requesting a fine close to or at the maximum,” noted the Commission.

Importantly, the Commission acted in advance of the completion of criminal proceedings. In San Francisco, the Ethics Commission has claimed it needs to wait on criminal action.

In other, more troubling developments, the Center for Governmental Studies closed its doors after 28 years of providing independent expert analysis of governmental ethics and accountability. It’s leader, Bob Stern, was the architect of California’s landmark Political Reform Act of 1974.

Stern was one of those whose advice was often sought by San Francisco City Hall, and one of the group’s board members was former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos.

Recently the San Francisco Ethics Commission was urged to contact Stern when it first considered how to adapt our laws to the Supreme Court decision, but Ethics Executive Director John St. Croix did not endorse that suggestion and it appeared that Commissioners had no idea who Bob Stern was or his work.

As Chronicle editorial page editor John Diaz wrote after the Center announced its doors are closing, “It is especially regrettable that CBS is going away at a time when the context and history if provides is so despearetely needed….The debate needs the benefit of research that is meticulous and fair on matters such as how reforms fared in other states.”

In a message to supporters, the Center’s chair noted that it had become a casualty of a “dramatically polarized political environment.”

Steven Roundtree offered a grim analysis for the future of political reform, writing that the closing of the Center is also a consequence of “court rulings that have tended to gut laws and regulations aimed at making the democratic process fairer.   I believe that foundations have given up hope of meaningful reform in this climate.”

If that analysis holds true anywhere, it would be in San Francisco. We weep.


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