Imagine you sat on a city commission charged with approving multimillion-dollar housing projects. If I donated $10,000 to your place of employment, would you vote in favor of my project?
If you said “darn right,” then — ding, ding, ding! — you’ve identified a major conflict of interest at the San Francisco Planning Commission. One of its commissioners, Christine Johnson, just started working for the policy think tank SPUR as its San Francisco director in early March.
SPUR’s website describes Johnson’s role as a fundraiser responsible for “city-level decisions” in San Francisco. So, she’ll be a leader in asking for big bucks from the titans in local housing projects.
Shorenstein Company, LLC. Emerald Fund, Inc. Kilroy Realty Corporation. Lennar Corporation. Forest City Enterprises, Inc. Webcor Builders. Related California Urban Housing.
That’s a short list of businesses that have sought approval from, or are working on projects that have sought approval from, the Planning Commission, which Johnson has sat on since 2014. It’s also a list of SPUR’s business members and donors, via its 2016 annual report.
Johnson said in an email Monday that working at SPUR is a “dream come true … a chance to work full time on solving some of the larger challenges that San Francisco faces.”
She also said the City Attorney’s Office reassured her there would not be a conflict, so long as SPUR doesn’t advocate directly to the Planning Commission while she is a member.
Well, at least one member of the San Francisco Ethics Commission thinks Johnson’s dual roles are an obvious conflict of interest: Quentin Kopp.
Kopp told On Guard he plans to introduce at the Ethics Commission’s next meeting legislation “to bar service on a city commission of anyone whose salary or independent contract income is derived partially, or fully, from entities or individuals with applications for permits.”
“She sits on the Planning Commission, and her salary is paid by SPUR,” Kopp said. “It’s got to be stopped. What’s going to happen when, let’s suppose, Shorenstein comes in with an application for a building permit? Or an [environmental impact report] has to be approved, and she’s a vote?”
In fact, such a situation has already happened.
SPUR announced Johnson’s role as San Francisco director on March 2. But at a March 23 Planning Commission meeting, Johnson voted to approve an environmental impact report to clear a massive housing project at 1500 Mission St.
The developer of that 39-story, 560-unit tower (the current site of a Goodwill store) is Related California, one of SPUR’s donors. SPUR’s 2016 annual report doesn’t list the donation amount and, as a nonprofit, it is not required to disclose the amount.
Kopp’s legislation would first need a vote by the Ethics Commission, then a subsequent vote by the Board of Supervisors — but there’s a catch.
A hotly controversial advisory vote by the Planning Commission on dueling proposals, which address the amounts and recipients of inclusionary affordable housing in new developments, is anticipated for later this month.
One proposal, by supervisors Ahsha Safai and London Breed, targets middle-income earners at the expense of lower-income earners. The other proposal, by supervisors Aaron Peskin and Jane Kim, prioritizes lower-income earners with affordable housing.
As one of four appointees of Mayor Ed Lee to the Planning Commission — the Board of Supervisors has three appointees — Johnson may be a key vote on that issue.
Johnson wrote to me Monday, “Before accepting the role at SPUR, I agreed to transition off the Planning Commission when a suitable replacement was approved and confirmed.”
But Johnson didn’t say when exactly she would leave.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see Safai and Breed’s proposal, which the Mayor’s Office supports, would be imperiled if Johnson left before May.
When asked when Johnson would be replaced, the Mayor’s Office wrote to me, “We are in the process of finding a replacement for Christine Johnson, and given the importance of the Planning Commission, this action is something the Mayor takes very seriously.”
Johnson’s would be a reliable vote, as she has already shown strong loyalty to the Mayor’s Office.
Two years ago, I uncovered through a public records request a text message exchange between Johnson and the Mayor’s Office, showing she changed her Planning Commission vote on a key provision to tighten regulations on Airbnb after she was rebuked by a mayoral staffer.
In short, Johnson voted in favor of tightening the regulations, received a few texts, apologized to the Mayor’s Office for her vote and swiftly changed her vote.
Kopp is right on the money to tackle this issue, and it will be interesting to see which supervisors vote to tighten loopholes against — perceived or real — pay-to-play activity.
Still, it looks like his effort may not be in time.
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at Facebook.com/FitztheReporter.