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The Ethics Reform On the table

by Larry Bush on 05/10/2013

in Paper Trails

Chiu, Herrera Put Ethics on the Agenda

Board President David Chiu and City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s proposed ethics reforms would force into the open a flow of money aimed at influencing City Hall that has been hidden by custom and law, identifying how play-to-pay politics tips the scale on decisions that cost taxpayers in swollen contracts, preferential approval of permits and ensnares even do-gooder nonprofits as allies.

In opting for heightened disclosure, the two city leaders laid aside for now adding new prohibitions such as enacting bans on contributions by lobbyists, fundraising by city commissioners or stretching the current ban on contractor contributions to include bundling of money contractors collect from others. Those are all features of ethics laws in force in other jurisdictions, notably Los Angeles and in Sacramento.

Although the introduction of the proposed reforms was accompanied by denials that any individuals or specific influence-peddlers are being targeted, it’s no secret that the two former mayoral candidates lost in a contest with Ed Lee in the last election that was operated largely behind the scenes by Lee’s inner circle of Rose Pak and Willie Brown. Neither register as lobbyists or show up much on donor lists; in the case of Rose Pak, she doesn’t even show up on the voter rolls. Nevertheless the two essentially created Ed Lee as the interim mayor and have since seen him appoint their friends and allies to key city posts and award contracts and grants that reward their friends.

They are far from alone, however, in seeking to avoid disclosing their financial interests in City Hall decisions or a web of alliances that are only hinted when City Hall then hands out taxpayer money to entities with close ties to them.

These hidden persuaders are playing a significant role in the current debate over waiving restrictions on the waterfront to allow 8 Washington’s luxury condos to rise higher than the former Embarcadero Freeway did, to position a new Warriors arena on piers sunk into the Bay with a cash cow of condos, office space, retail and housing linked at the seawall, and were intimately involved with Mayor Lee’s decision to support tax breaks for social media last year and the Mid-Market revival.

Reform Ripple Reaches Sacramento, Washington

In important respects, the San Francisco proposals mirror approaches now underway in Sacramento and Washington that seek to open to public view hidden money from “dark” committees that keep secret their donors. The state Fair Political Practices Commission is suing one committee for what amounts to money laundering, several state legislators including State Senators Mark Leno and Leland Yee have authored measures that add new disclosure rules, and in Washington the Securities and Exchange Commission has proposed a rule that would require publicly traded corporations to reveal their political contributions.

These efforts follow in the wake of the US Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United that opened the way for corporations and billionaire donors to overwhelm the political process through unlimited political spending.

Although sharing similar goals, the San Francisco, Sacramento and Washington initiatives approach their goals differently. If all or most are enacted, together they will significantly alter what the public will know about the pressures and influences that seek to tilt the game in favor of monied special interests at the expense of the public interests.

The San Francisco proposals did not originate from the city’s Ethics Commission that has a charter mandate to review and propose laws that value the public interest. Despite the changed landscape resulting from the Supreme Court decision and the emergence of campaign spending that escapes current restrictions, the Commission has failed to discharge its responsibilities under the Charter to assess political spending.

Demands for Ethics Commission Actions

The Chiu-Herrera proposal addresses this in part with a requirement that the Ethics Commission audit at least one lobbyist each year – something it has not done in its 20 years of existence. It also requires Ethics to provide a list of City officials who failed to file Statements of Economic Interest that can reveal financial and other conflicts, another step not taken by Ethics.

Harkening back to a 2012 Rules Committee hearing and request that was unmet, the Chiu-Herrera proposal also requires that San Francisco’s Ethics Commission to provide information to contributors on the city’s rules and to provide information in non-English languages. Those follow the model in Los Angeles identified in a 2012 Harvey Rose report that compared San Francisco and Los Angeles Ethics Commission policies and practices.

The most important next step for the Board to undertake regarding the city’s Ethics Commission is to make its appointment to a seat on the Commission, now vacant as the result of the resignation of Dorothy Liu. The Board makes one of the five commission appointments.

Hulda Garfolo, who headed the 2011 Civil Grand Jury report on Ethics titled “The Sleeping Watchdog,” has submitted an application for the vacant Ethics seat. That report looked at the Commission’s failure to adopt standards for levying fines,  providing televised commission meetings, and failing to act on nearly every Sunshine complaint over the past 15 years.

The 2013 proposals may well be the first effort to corral City Hall influence peddlers since then-Supervisor Tom Ammiano introduced his measure requiring political consultants to register, report clients and disclose payments.  City Hall politics threw every obstacle it had to defeat Ammiano’s Honest Election Act introduced in 1996, vetoed by then-Mayor Willie Brown, passed again in 1997, vetoed again by Mayor Brown, and finally passed after four supervisor put it on the ballot, surviving a $100,000 campaign against it mounted by political consultants.

In 2011, the Ethics Commission, long regarded as captive to the regulated community, proposed easing Ammiano’s law by allowing the Commission to amend it without seeking voter approval. Voters rejected that end-run by an overwhelming margin in the November 2011 election.

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