Agency official under fire for development project endorsement

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BCDC Vice Chair Anne Halsted, shown in this screen shot of Open Up the Waterfront's campaign ad.

Did a high-ranking official of a regional conservation authority improperly use her influence to secure $10,000 for a nonprofit she chairs the board of? That’s the allegation raised against San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission Vice-Chair Anne Halsted in a complaint filed with the Fair Political Practices Commission, a statewide ethics agency.

Halsted appeared in a campaign ad produced by Open Up the Waterfront, which is pushing a San Francisco ballot measure seeking public approval for 8 Washington, a controversial waterfront development project that has become a political flashpoint in San Francisco.

Halsted also chairs of the board of directors of SPUR, a member-supported San Francisco nonprofit focused on planning issues.

In addition to publicly endorsing Open Up the Waterfront, SPUR received a $10,000 donation from San Francisco Waterfront Partners, the 8 Washington developers and major funders of the ballot initiative, sometime between May and the end of June. The campaign ad was posted to YouTube on July 22.

Geraldine Crowley, a volunteer working on a competing ballot measure campaign formed in opposition to 8 Washington, No Wall on the Waterfront, seized on this donation in her FPPC complaint. Crowley charged that Halsted violated conflict-of-interest rules under the California Political Reform Act, saying Halsted “used [her] official position to influence a governmental decision in which the official knows or has reason to know that he or she has a financial interest.”

“I would just like to have her portion of the commercial erased,” Crowley said in an interview. “What she says in the commercial does not reflect how all of BCDC feels about Open Up The Waterfront.” 

The video also features an appearance by Will Travis, retired director of BCDC. “This appears to be a violation of the conflict-of-interest rules designed to prevent financial gifts from influencing public officials entrusted to steward public assets  such as the Bay,” said Jon Golinger, a spokesperson for No Wall on the Waterfront. 

Halsted didn’t respond to our request for comment, but she did contact BCDC Chair Zack Wasserman to address the concerns raised by No Wall on the Waterfront in a message that was later forwarded to the Guardian.

"For several years [I] have supported a project called 8 Washington which is near the waterfront, but totally outside BCDC's jurisdiction. Because a recent video advocating the project indicated that I, a supporter of the project, am vice chair of BCDC, some have worried that it implies BCDC support - something I have never envisioned or contemplated!  Please be assured that my advocacy is personal because I believe it is an excellent project, not because any organization with which I associate has voted to endorse the project!  Sorry if this confused anyone."

Whether Halsted influenced the $10,000 donation to SPUR in connection with her support for the project remains unclear. The organization’s operating budget exceeded $3 million during the 2011-2012 year, according to SPUR’S annual report.

“When it comes to conflict-of-interest violations, it needs to be found that a public official is making governmental decisions based on money that has been given to them,” Gary Winuk, chief of the enforcement division at FPPC said. “After we receive the complaint, we wait 10 days for the person accused to respond, then launch an investigation and review all the facts if there is just cause.” 

David Beltran, spokesperson for Open Up the Waterfront, criticized the complaint as “a reckless and meritless attempt to suppress free speech.”

It’s likely to be a week or more before the FPPC determines whether Crowley’s complaint has any validity. If the FPPC determines that that Halsted did indeed violate the conflict-of-interest rules under the California Political  Reform Act, she may face penalties such as a misdemeanor and $5,000 per violation.

Larry Goldzband, the commission’s executive director, noted that BCDC has yet to endorse the project.

"The multi-use project proposed at 8 Washington Street in San Francisco is not in the jurisdiction of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission," Goldzband said. "BCDC has neither considered nor endorsed the project, nor has any Commissioner asked that the Commission review the project in any manner."