Seeking a watchdog's watchdog

Supervisors reject Ethics Commission candidate who has agitated for reform

The Board of Supervisors voted to appoint Dorothy Liu (bottom) to the Ethics Commission instead of Allen Grossman (top)

When cash pumps through the guts of city politics, the Ethics Commission is charged with keeping track of it all to help members of the public follow the money. But what happens when the public loses faith in the ethics of the Ethics Commission?

In the run-up to a hotly contested mayoral race, in a city marked by rough-and-tumble politics influenced by moneyed power brokers, the function of this local-government watchdog agency is especially critical — and to hear some critics tell it, the Ethics Commission needs reform if it is to perform as an effective safeguard against corruption.

So it was hardly surprising that an April 5 discussion at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting about whom to appoint to the Ethics Commission featured a low-level tug-of-war with some potentially high-level implications.

Sup. Eric Mar proposed that the board consider Allen Grossman for the seat. An octogenarian government watchdog unaffiliated with any political party, Grossman has gone so far as to file a successful lawsuit against the Ethics Commission for not following its own public-disclosure rules. As a potential appointee, he was widely viewed as reform-minded, following in the footsteps of others who have been purged from the body in recent years.

"Open government and good government work together, hand in hand," Grossman told members of the board's Rules Committee several weeks prior, interlacing his fingers for emphasis.

Grossman won the backing of Sups. John Avalos and Ross Mirkarimi. But Board President David Chiu spoke against the idea, throwing his support instead behind Dorothy Liu, an attorney and professional colleague of his through the Asian American Bar Association. The Rules Committee, chaired by Sup. Jane Kim and filled out by Sups. Sean Elsbernd and Mark Farrell, also turned down Grossman in favor of Liu.

"She's extremely hard-working and does her homework," Chiu later told the Guardian. He also saw it as a plus that Liu was not a political insider: "I think we need an individual on the Ethics Commission who will be impartial," he said, adding that he'd prefer "someone who has not been involved in the rough-and-tumble of San Francisco politics." Sup. Carmen Chu echoed Chiu's comments during the meeting, saying she thought Liu would be an ideal candidate because she did not seem to have an agenda.

Mirkarimi and Avalos, on the other hand, said they were looking for a candidate who did possess a vision for strengthening the role of the agency as a watchdog. "I think our Ethics Commission and the department, as it stands, needs all the help it can get," Mirkarimi said during the meeting. "I think having people who are well-seasoned with an understanding in the law of ethics and sunshine is something we should be looking for. Mr. Grossman has exhibited that well over the years in trying to do everything he possibly can to advance the cause in a nonpartisan way of making sure that we have a very strong Ethics Commission."

Mar's motion to consider Grossman was shot down on an 8-3 vote with Mirkarimi, Mar, and Avalos dissenting; Liu then won the commission appointment on a 10-1 vote, with Avalos dissenting.

Until recently, the Board of Supervisors seat on the Ethics Commission was held by Eileen Hansen, a progressive who had called for political reform under Mayor Willie Brown's administration prior to being named to the post. When she was being considered for the commission, Hansen recalled, then-Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier raised an objection. "[She] thought the perfect person would be somebody who ... would come essentially as a clean slate," Hansen remembered. "Because I had been involved in organizing campaigns and had run for office, that was deemed too political."