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Making reform about the future

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The San Francisco Ethics Commission and Board of Supervisors will conduct a joint meeting Tuesday to address pay-to-play politics in The City. (Courtesy photo)

A joint meeting of the Board of Supervisors and the San Francisco Ethics Commission on Tuesday will put a spotlight on City Hall’s willingness to tackle pay-to-play deal-making and put public interest ahead of politicians’ own interests.

So far, the results are not encouraging, but one hopes for change.

The Ethics Commission earlier seized the initiative by proposing an “Anti-Corruption and Accountability Ordinance” to tighten rules on lobbyists and influence peddling. But after two years of hearings and debate, the commission took a dive on the current proposal. With two new go-slow members, the commission couldn’t win four of five commissioners’ support to enact these needed reforms.

Instead, the can was kicked down the road to the supervisors in the form of Tuesday’s special joint session, which infuriated the Ethics Commission Chair Peter Keane so highly that he literally resigned on the spot.

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

Voters gave the Ethics Commission the authority to put something directly on the ballot out of reasonable fear that City Hall actions would be heavily influenced by favoritism, head nods and handshakes. The suspicion hovers that City Hall laxly enforces our laws regarding Uber, Airbnb, Google buses and the enrichment of developers, as seen by schemes to build waterfront condos for millionaires.

Yet, similar efforts to stymie influence peddling have come and gone in our history. Nearly 20 years ago, San Francisco voters overwhelmingly passed the Voter Protection Act that cut ties between political fundraising and benefits and awarding public benefits including permits, development agreements, franchises, tax variances and similar decisions. It lasted about two years before an all-but-secret repeal was enacted to remove it.

Piece by piece, San Francisco enacted reforms that left huge loopholes, intentionally or thoughtlessly. Contractors were banned from contributing, but not from fundraising. Contribution limits were passed for campaigns, but not when it came to checks requested by an officeholder. Officeholders can ask the commissioners they appoint to fundraise for re-election campaigns or to retire a campaign debt.

Other cities, and even the state capitol, have leapt into action on these issues, but not San Francisco. And this year’s halted effort by the Ethics Commission to create an “Anti-Corruption and Accountability Ordinance” aimed to bring us forward with something similar to the spirit of what voters passed nearly two decades ago — only for the first time, with actual teeth.

What is needed is something stronger than closing the loopholes of the past, because much like our city at large, local politics have been “disrupted.”

Reforms that recognized the undue influence of downtown over neighborhoods aren’t effective when financial influences are international and national. Bad corporate actors have moved away from exerting direct influence over politicians and instead funnel dark money through self-proclaimed nonprofits; campaigns have shifted from sending mailers and door-hangers to the digital realm of social media, text messages and bots. Influence-peddlers successfully dodge being called lobbyists, a label that brings numerous ethics rules, to avoid disclosing their activities.

SEE RELATED: Sweeping SF campaign finance reform possibly set for a vote on April 3

And as the dark influence grows, today’s stakes have grown greater still. Rather than winning a contract approval from a friendly officeholder, peddlers seek to rezone The City and neighborhoods to be more like London or Hong Kong with maximum returns for investors, not residents. “Highest and best use,” the mantra of development, is being defined by developer profits, not community needs. Not long ago, Hong Kong was held up as a model for our town.

Today, elections are affected by brokers who arrange for endorsements and who provide in-kind services, like consulting, which The City does not thoroughly track. That activity flies under the radar because it doesn’t have a monetary value.

The Board of Supervisors and Ethics Commission should aim to shut down city officials appointing their donors and fundraisers to city commissions. They should force into public view the debarment of contractors who fail to perform or cheat taxpayers, which, right now, is done in secret, if at all. They should name names of those who bundle contributions for city candidates as well as the names of city officials who ask for contributions to ballot measures or committees, including Independent Expenditure Committees, our local version of Super PACs.

The public appetite for reform is high, but the Ethics Commission wasn’t prepared to be that nimble. Today, it lacks the resources to enact even the weakened reforms before January 2019, after voters go to the ballot in June and November without the reforms that may pass this week. It still can’t implement a reform passed more than a year ago, which took effect in January.

Elections, by definition, are about the future. But reforms are too often focused on the past and its abuses. What’s needed now is reform that meets the future.

Larry Bush is a founder of Friends of Ethics.

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