Candidates Talk It Up
There was near universal support for increasing transparency (providing a Guide for Contributors to reduce confusion, providing material in languages other than English, requiring electronic reporting), and for tightening up the potential for influence-peddling (a ban on contributions from lobbyists, a ban on giving contributions in City Hall itself).
Overall, there were relatively few candidates who gave negative responses to the questions.
Several candidates added comments in their responses, both to specific questions and to their overall view of the need for Ethics reforms. The comments demonstrated a surprising familiarity with the problems at Ethics, as well as a candor and genuine effort to delve deeper beyond “yes” or “no.”
They are, in our view, a “must read.”
John Avalos explains his responses with a note that the sum total of the proposed reforms would take several years to accomplish, and that he is supportive of these recommendations but would expect other colleagues to take the lead on some.
David Chiu offers some qualifications to his answers, raising questions about unintended consequences that should be addressed in any fix-its.
Eric Mar underscores his answers with comments on the values that have to be incorporated in how City Hall conducts its business. He also addresses the specific concerns of those who have been excluded from participating in decisions that affect them.
Norman Yee underscores similar points, also from his experience as an elected official at the School Board, where there is a strong need for outreach and better participation.
John Rizzo provides deeper insights into his work at the Community College, addressing the fiscal problems and its history of unethical and illegal activities. As he notes, he has a record as an elected official to give weight to his answers, and he explains how that plays out. Hope Johnson, until recently the chair of the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, is both well-versed in the problems and well-versed in solutions. Thea Selby, who serves on the Citizens General Bond Oversight Committee, has intelligent comments as well. There are excellent comments from a number of other candidates, and taken together they show that the issue of ethics reforms is moving from the margins and into the “action” column when the new Board takes office.
CitiReport gives the full responses from all candidates, by district, linked here:
Questionnaires went to 23 candidates, and 16 candidates returned answers. Responses came from incumbents John Avalos, David Campos, David Chiu and Eric Mar, and from leading candidates like Norman Yee, F.X. Crowley, John Rizzo, Julian Davis among others.
A scant few either failed to respond or refused to answer.
District 1 candidate David Lee refused to respond, noting that CitiReport’s Larry Bush is reported as a major donor to Eric Mar (apparently the concept of rank choice voting endorsing more than one candidate is not understood by the Executive Director of the Chinese American Voter Education Committee; we wait to see if Lee will decline interviews with other media that make endorsements).
District 5’s London Breed offered a later interview in lieu of responding to the questions, although saying she would agree with some of the issues. She declined on the basis of time.
District 5’s Christina Olague did not respond or acknowledge the request despite repeated contacts. Olague is the only incumbent not to respond.
District 7’s Mike Garcia likewise did not respond with his views on ethics reforms. Garcia is a past chair of the SF Ethics Commission when it was found to have violated the city’s Sunshine Ordinance with a super-speedy process to put Sean Elsbernd into the seat held by Tony Hall. Elsbernd is returning the favor with an endorsement of Garcia this year.
What was behind these questions?
Ethics is one of the most under-the-radar city agencies and has used that to its advantage by sidestepping nearly all the efforts to introduce improvements to its operations and policies. In 2011 it refused the Civil Grand Jury proposal that its meetings be televised and only changed after Supervisor David Campos introduced a measure telling Ethics to begin televised commission meetings.
With that background, CitiReport asked candidates if they would take other steps that so far have been resisted by Ethics’ Executive Director, John St. Croix. These are steps like providing information in languages other than English or creating a web-based Guide for Contributors that are in place in other jurisdictions and that don’t require legislation. All candidates responding to our questionnaire agreed that would join in an effort to push these steps forward with Ethics.
As a base measure, CitiReport drew on existing policies identified by Board Budget Analyst Harvey Rose in a comparison of San Francisco with Los Angeles (see his report here). They span LA laws from banning contributions from lobbyists to a citizen’s right of private action to sue when Ethics and other enforcement agencies fail to act (this is similar to the SF private right of action won to sue violations of the city’s Residential Hotel Ordinance that went largely unenforced until a private right of action was added to the law, something sought by Randy Shaw’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic).
Perhaps the most important purpose of the Questionnaire, in addition to putting candidates on the record, was to serve as a briefing paper on the obstacles to reducing the City Hall influence of special interests that outweigh citizen needs and priorities.