Ethics chair resigns over failure to place campaign finance reforms on June ballot

The chair of the Ethics Commission has abruptly stepped down after the watchdog agency failed to place a campaign reform measure on the June ballot intended to crack down on the potential for pay-to play politics at City Hall.

Peter Keane, chair of the Ethics Commission, walked out of the Ethics Commission meeting late Friday after the commission voted against placing the so-called Anti-Corruption and Accountability Ordinance on the June ballot, a measure it had worked on for two years.

Keane voted to place it on the ballot, along with Ethics Commissioners Quentin Kopp and Paul Renne, while Commissioners Yvonne Lee and Daina Chiu opposed it. It takes four votes to place a measure on the ballot.

Keane said people have reached out to him to convince him to stay, but he reiterated his decision Monday. “I have resigned,” said Keane, the dean emeritus at Golden Gate University School of Law.

He said that after spending so much time on crafting reforms he argues San Francisco needs and failing to bring it to voters he “couldn’t with any sense of integrity stay on the commission.”

The fate of the reform measure is now uncertain.

After Keane’s departure Friday, the commission carried on without him and decided to try another route to get the measure passed — working with the Board of Supervisors.

However, supporters of the reform measure fear the politically-charged legislative process could water down the proposal.

Keane said they had already watered down the strength of the initial proposal by 50 percent, after listening to feedback from lobbyists and other groups.

“I have no faith in the Board of Supervisors to do what we couldn’t do,” Keane said, suggesting supervisors will succumb to pressures of “baloney reasons” to further water it down.

Larry Bush, a founder of Friends of Ethics, a group which advocates for stricter campaign finance regulations, said Monday that “the Ethics reforms are on life support.”

But Renne refuted Bush’s characterization, noting that the measure could still be placed on the November ballot.

“Maybe a little delayed, but I am confident that it will be on the ballot if the Board doesn’t act, possibly in a better form than had we put it on the June ballot,” Renne wrote in an email Monday.

Bush seemingly retracted the statement in a follow-up email, stating: “I should have made clear I meant life support for a June ballot measure. I hope that the Board will act and perhaps get something in place even before June.”

Keane said the deadline for the commission to place the measure on the June ballot is next week and that effort died on Friday, since the votes aren’t there.

The commission ultimately voted Friday after Keane left to send to the board the reform proposal for a vote at a joint meeting that has not yet been scheduled.

Both the commission and the board would need to approve the same version of the proposal for it to become law. The board started to review the reforms last month and has already made several recommendations for changes, some of which the commission adopted Friday.

The commission also voted 3-1 to fold into the reform package a recent proposal from Supervisor Aaron Peskin to require big donors to disclose their investments — although the City Attorney’s Office hadn’t yet approved it as to form. An Ethics Commission staff memo has also raised questions about its constitutionality.

Peskin has said he wants his specific provision in place in time to impact the June election, but it remains unclear if that’s feasible even if it gets approved. If the provision is approved and signed into law by the mayor, it would be 30-days before it could go into effect.

The proposal would require those who donate $10,000 or more to one political committee, sometimes referred to as Super PACS, to disclose their financial investments of $10,000 or more in any business in San Francisco.

Peskin, whose legislative aide provided comments throughout Friday’s meeting, had encouraged the commission to postpone placing a measure on the June ballot, and instead work with the board. Like Renne, he noted that the commission could always vote to place a measure on the November ballot if the board failed.

Nonprofits have been critical of the commission’s reform measure, saying it could chill fundraising and hamper their ability to serve on city commissions.

Debbi Lerman, of the S.F. Human Services Network, a group of nonprofits, said the proposal continued to raise concerns and it was unclear if amendments being proposed by board members and the commission would adequately address them, in an email sent to the San Francisco Examiner Friday before the meeting.

The provisions she criticized included one related to recusals by those serving on city bodies. Repeated recusals would trigger a review by the Ethics Commission.

Lerman said that “would create a barrier for nonprofit representatives who serve on Commissions that vote on their employers’ contracts, and who properly recuse themselves from those votes.”

She added, “under the Ethics Commission legislation, those Commissioners could be asked to ‘remove the conflict’ (i.e. quit their job?) or be recommended for removal from the Commission.”

Lerman said she supported not going to the June ballot, but having the two government bodies “engage in a collaborative process to review the legislation together.”

Bush said nonprofits’ opposition was a factor in the commission’s decision not to place the measure on the June ballot. He characterized the opposition in an email as “some well-connected organizations that benefit from keeping things as they are now, being appointed to key city commissions and then voting to fund the donors that support their own organization.”

He added, “It is an income protection racket, often from groups that claim an exemption from disclosing their own lobbying and their own finances. At this point, they are succeeding in blocking the reforms that would benefit the city.”

Bush said he hopes Keane, who was appointed to the post by City Attorney Dennis Herrera, will reconsider his announced resignation Friday and remain on the Ethics Commission.

“I hope that Commission President Keane will decide not to make his resignation official, and return to the leadership of the Commission,” Bush said. “He has the experience and knowledge to continue making the city better and enhancing the public’s right to know and right to act.”

Joshua Sabatini

Joshua Sabatini covers City Hall for the San Francisco Examiner. Reach him at

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