Seeking a watchdog's watchdog - Page 2

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)

Yet Hansen viewed her familiarity with the system as an asset that helped her serve as an effective watchdog against corruption. During her six-year tenure, Hansen often cast lone dissenting votes against decisions she believed were weakening ethical standards. She told the Guardian she'd tried floating remedies for situations she viewed as inappropriate, only to have them summarily ignored, a role similar to that of former Ethics Commission member and staffer Joe Lynn.

In one case, Hansen recalled, she became concerned about a planning commissioner who also directed a nonprofit. To raise money, her organization held fundraisers that were ostensibly attended and funded by the very same developers and lobbyists who appeared before her at the Planning Commission. Yet Hansen said she was unable to persuade the other commissioners or staff to call for an investigation.

A more recent Ethics Commission vote underscores the same tension. On March 14, the commission voted unanimously to waive a pair of ethics regulations to allow a mayoral staff member to become executive director of the America's Cup Organizing Committee (ACOC). Composed of highly influential business figures including at least two billionaire investors, ACOC is tasked with securing corporate donations for the America's Cup to offset city costs of hosting the race.

Kyri McClellan, project manager with the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development, helped craft a memorandum of understanding with ACOC regarding its fundraising obligations to the city. In her new job, without skipping a beat, she'll interface with the city on behalf of ACOC. The rules that were waived for her benefit are meant to prevent city officials from holding undue influence over their former coworkers after leaving public service, and to prevent city staffers from accepting money from city contractors right after departing from city employment.

"If I had been there, there would have been at least one vote against that waiver," said Hansen, whose term on the commission ended before this vote. "We have this law in place for a reason. By continuing to provide waivers ... we create a situation where the public will not trust the Ethics Commission as a watchdog."

Hansen said she was scouting for a new commissioner who would carry on with her work. "I was looking for and trying to recruit a visionary — someone who could really be a reformer," she said. "We're almost in a position now where we need a watchdog over the watchdog." She said she saw Grossman as the right fit.

Other observers, such as CitiReport blogger Larry Bush — an investigative reporter who called for the creation of the Ethics Commission in San Francisco in the early 1990s — questioned whether Liu was the best choice after hearing her statements at the March 17 Rules Committee hearing. Liu did not come out strongly in favor of televising Ethics Commission meetings, which has long been a sticking point for open-government advocates.

"I absolutely support televising the Ethics Commission, I think it's really important," Kim noted when we asked her about this. She added that she would have supported Oliver Luby — a former Ethics Commission staff member and whistleblower who was ultimately ousted from the job — if he'd applied.

Kim noted that an initial concern she'd had in seeking an ethics commissioner was whether the person would vote to allow Mayor Lee to resume his job as city administrator after serving out his term as interim mayor, a key decision that the commission was scheduled to consider April 11.

Once she was advised that it would be inappropriate to ask which way they would vote when conducting candidate interviews, Kim said she withheld her question — and still didn't know Liu's or Grossman's position at the time she spoke with the Guardian. "I think it's very appropriate for him to get his job back," Kim noted. "That vote is very important to me."