Whose Ethics?

Reformers say the Ethics Commission needs to alter its focus and honor the city's important grassroots political culture
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Part two in a Guardian series The read part one, click here.

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The San Francisco Ethics Commission is at an important crossroads, facing decisions that could have a profound impact on the city's political culture: should every violation be treated equally or should this agency focus on the most flagrant efforts to corrupt the political system?

The traditionally anemic agency that regulates campaign spending is just now starting to get the staff and resources it needs to fulfill its mandate. But its aggressive investigation of grassroots treasurer Carolyn Knee (see "The Ethics of Ethics," 7/4/07) — which concluded July 9 with her being fined just $267 — is raising questions about its focus and mission.

"For the first time in our history, we're having growing pains," Ethics Commission executive director John St. Croix told the Guardian, noting that the agency's 16 staffers (slated to increase to 19 next year) are double what he started with three years ago.

Reformers like Joe Lynn — a former Ethics staffer and later a commissioner — say the commission should do more to help small, all-volunteer campaigns negotiate the Byzantine campaign finance rules, be more forgiving when such campaigns make mistakes, and focus on more significant violations by campaigns that seek to deceive voters and swing elections.

"The traditional thinking is there's no exception to the law, and that's been my traditional thinking too," Lynn said. "But it doesn't cut the mustard when you see a Carolyn Knee say, 'I'm not going to do that again.'<\!s>"

At Knee's June 11 hearing, Doug Comstock — who often does political consulting for small organizations — urged commissioners to reevaluate their mission. "Why are you here?" he asked them. "You're not here to pick on the little guys."

Yet St. Croix told us, "That's not really the way the law is written. Everybody is supposed to be treated the same.... The notion that the Ethics Commission was only created to nail the big guns is not correct."

That said, St. Croix agrees that regulators should be tougher on willful violators and those who have lots of experience and familiarity with the rules they're breaking. And he said they do that. But it's the grassroots campaigns that tend to have the most violations.

"It's frustrating because the people who make the most mistakes are the ones with the least experience," St. Croix said, noting that the commission can't simply ignore violations.

 

A MATTER OF PRIORITIES

But critics of the commission say the problem is one of priorities. Even if there were problems with Knee's campaign, there was no reason the commission should have launched such an in-depth and expensive investigation four years after the fact. That decision was recently criticized in a resolution approved by the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee, which argued that the approach discourages citizens from getting politically involved.

"[The] San Francisco Ethics Commission spends an inordinate amount of its meager resources in pursuing petty violations allegedly committed by grassroots campaigns; this disproportionate enforcement against grassroots campaigns is directly contrary to the goal of the Campaign Finance Reform Ordinance," one "whereas" from the resolution read.

The resolution's principal sponsor, Robert Haaland, is intimately familiar with the problem. When he ran for supervisor in District 5 two years ago, his treasurer had a doctorate from Stanford and still struggled to understand and comply with the law. But they made a good-faith effort, he said, and shouldn't be targeted by Ethics.

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