THE GRASSROOTS CULTURE
Some say the whole idea of local campaign reform is to nurture an important and unique aspect of San Francisco: its vibrant and diverse grassroots political culture. "For every two committees in LA, there are three in San Francisco," Lynn said, adding that it used to be a more extreme, two-to-one ratio. Larger cities often have more professionals involved, he said. "San Francisco has a unique political culture, very heavy on the grass roots."
Yet the Ethics Commission doesn't see protection of the little person as part of its mission.
"The fundamental problem with Ethics is it is not staffed by people who have been advocates for good government reforms," Lynn said. "The Ethics Commission needs to come to grips with the fact that they're tampering with the grassroots political culture of San Francisco."
Lynn would like the commission to direct some resources toward hiring assistants to staff the office during the two or three weeks prior to Election Day, a crew that would help prevent violations and inoculate campaigns against being fined for errors that do occur.
"If you looked at the money that the Ethics Commission is spending going after citizen filers and reallocated it toward a staff of clerks, the cost to the city would be minimal," Lynn said, estimating it at about $100,000.
Calling it the "H&R Block Unit," Lynn thinks a staff of 10 to 15 clerks could be trained to assist small campaigns, individuals, and first-time filers who would come in and be walked through the complex paperwork.
St. Croix said such services are available now to inexperienced treasurers and those who ask for help — although not nearly as extensive as Lynn envisions — and he'd like to expand them in the future. But he said there are legal and practical complications to giving campaigns formal advice in letters that they might later use in their defense.
"I think it's a lofty goal to educate people," commission chair Susan Harriman told us. "We have staff with the sole job to keep people educated." She said she's attended meetings at which outreach occurred between the commission and community, but only as an observer. She thinks it's the job of the staff to take an active community role, although St. Croix said that's a resource issue.
Commissioner Emi Gusukuma thinks the appointed commissioners should be more involved. "I would be happy to be part of that team," she said of joining any Ethics community outreach. "Going to clubs — I would definitely be willing to do that." She noted that she and her fellow commissioners are all very busy, but she still thinks the educational aspect of their role is important.
Hansen also noted that a commission filled with relatively new appointees needs to hear more about the real-world impacts of its policies. "The public can educate the commissioners, and right now the commissioners are not educated on these issues," Hansen said.
She and other reformers would like to see St. Croix facilitate a discussion of what the commission's enforcement history has been and where the focus should be going forward.
"The perception is all we ever do is go after the small guys, but I don't know if that's really true," Gusukuma said. She's pushing staff to do more research into past enforcement actions "so we can tell the staff ... not who to prosecute but what kinds of cases are important. We haven't been able to get that analysis yet."
Lynn said another key component in the education campaign would be to televise Ethics Commission hearings, which would help people become more engaged with the agency's work. Commissioners Hansen and Gusukuma agreed, endorsing the proposal in this year's budget cycle and winning the support of Sup. Chris Daly before he was ousted as chair of the Budget and Finance Committee, after which the expenditure (estimated at about $30,000 per year) was removed from the budget.