Activists to government: SF should be more like LA

Is the Ethics Commission doing its job as a government watchdog? Woof.

What sets San Francisco apart from Los Angeles? When it comes to city agencies that are supposed to keep politicians, lobbyists and campaign financiers honest, there are evidently some key differences.

Last year, San Francisco’s Budget & Legislative Analyst, Harvey Rose, drafted a report at the behest of Sup. David Campos comparing the San Francisco Ethics Commission to that of LA. It was meant as a precursor for moving forward with a package of tougher Ethics regulations governing areas like campaign finance, but so far little has happened on that front.

Some of Rose’s findings are intriguing. For example, the report notes that in LA, investigations into possible ethics violations result in more findings of merit and, ultimately, significantly higher fines on average. Whereas the LA Ethics Commission dismisses just 19 percent of its cases, the vast majority of ethical investigations here in San Francisco – 76 percent – die off with findings of no merit, or “case dismissed.”

Do San Franciscans have a tendency to file more complaints lacking in substance, or does this reflect the modus operandi of the Ethics Commission – an agency that has long been painted as a sleeping watchdog by good-government wonks?

“I think that could be a fascinating figure to get more detail about,” says Eileen Hansen, a former member of the San Francisco Ethics Commission who served for six years. “LA heard more [cases], but we dismissed more,” she added.

Hansen is part of an ad hoc group, Friends of Ethics, that’s gearing up for an informational hearing scheduled for tomorrow, Feb. 27, to take a deeper look at the Rose report and consider what lessons San Francisco’s Ethics Commission might learn from its counterpart in LA, where government accountability rules are regarded by lawyers and government transparency activists as a gold standard. Those who attend the “interested persons” meeting will enjoy a rare perk: The ability to address a commission without having to adhere to the two-minute time limit normally imposed at public hearings.

“Those who are on the commission’s list – consultants, political treasurers, political lawyers, all the usual suspects – are the ones who have weighed in so far,” an email circulated by Friends of Ethics points out. “For ten years the rules have been written by those special interests, and we are insisting that they be written for the public interest.”

What’s LA got that San Francisco doesn’t? For one thing, the city bans political contributions from registered lobbyists. This means, for instance, that if a registered lobbyist is trying to sway an elected official who’s up for reelection on, say, a major development project, that lobbyist is legally barred from writing a big fat juicy check to support said politician’s campaign. In San Francisco, there is no such rule.

Hansen says there are other measures that could improve government accountability in San Francisco. "We ban contributions from city contractors, but we have a huge loophole," she explains, "of not including people seeking development projects. That's 90 percent. Development drives politics in this town," she added, noting that closing the loophole could be a possible reform.

“LA is doing some great things. Our hope is that we get the public to take the Rose report seriously,” Hansen said. “It could inform the beginning of a reform package that we would love to see the Ethics Commission take seriously.”

The Ethics Commission hearing will be held on Feb. 27 at 3 p.m. in San Francisco City Hall, Room 400.


Posted by Guest on Feb. 26, 2013 @ 2:34 pm

If it was #97 then how do you explain all the supes that were politically close to Mayor Willie Brown losing their re-election??? They presumably lost because voters saw them and Brown as being corrupt.

From my experience, I believe voters care deeply about ethics in govt. It's just that they are rarely (understatement) told when a govt official or govt agency is corrupt.

It doesn't help that the so-called Ethics Commission is a joke and doesn't enforce any ethics in SF.

But any pol who is revealed to the genl pop that he or she is unethical tends to be in big trouble politically.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 26, 2013 @ 8:03 pm

Ever wonder why parking meter rates went up so much this year? Well, one reason could be the sweetheart contract that went to a Reston, Virginia company paying them a total of $55 million to collect those quarters out of our parking meters. Oh, and the company's main area of business? National security for the defense establishment.

But hey, it's a tempest in a teapot, not a way of doing business that comes out of your pocket. Or is it?

Posted by CitiReport on Feb. 26, 2013 @ 4:15 pm

private sector company where the SF taxpayer is not on the hook for some insane healthcare and pension benefit.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 26, 2013 @ 4:30 pm

Was the contract put to bid? If it wasn't, that's an invitation to corruption and makes one wonder if an influential city official is getting a nice kickback from that co.

What city agency gave out the contract?

How does one find out info on contracts the City signs with private vendors?

I ask because I'm trying to find info on the contract that City Fields (i.e., the late Republican billionaire Don Fishers' three billionaire sons) got to remove grass from city parks (including GG Park) to replace it with dead plastic.

Apparently they (or the contractor they choose) are getting $12 M for removing the grass from the Beach Chalet field in GGP. I'd like to know how to find out if that $12 M is just the starting point for what they will get from the City of SF or if it will eventually end up being a lot more (I suspect it will).

Posted by Guest on Feb. 26, 2013 @ 8:17 pm

is letting public employee union leadership run wild in city government.

SF will never have a BOS representative of the citizens as longs as the worst special interest groups call the shots.

Posted by matlock on Feb. 26, 2013 @ 6:53 pm

Then we could put these parasites out into the long grass.

Posted by anon on Feb. 26, 2013 @ 7:26 pm

with almost exactly the same population. Facts don't lie.

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Feb. 26, 2013 @ 7:47 pm

according to an article in the Chron in the last month. That blew me away especially when pension and healthcare costs will be an additional and significant expense.

If your 60% figure is true, that's a huge bill the City is paying relative to 1980. If the economy slows down significantly, the $ for that bill isn't gonna be there.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 26, 2013 @ 8:32 pm