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Proposition T would curtail lobbyist influence over City Hall

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San Francisco City Hall. (Rachael Garner/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Proposition T aims to reduce the power of lobbyists over City Hall, and as November nears it faces little opposition to do so.

Proposed by the San Francisco Ethics Commission for this November’s ballot in a 4-0 vote, Prop. T would task lobbyists with identifying who in city government they intend to contact in the near future — and then bar lobbyists from making any gifts, including for travel, to those city officers and their families within 90 days of that activity.

Friends of Ethics member Larry Bush said lobbyists carry undue influence over City Hall.

“You see lobbyists giving unspecified amounts of money who carry influence with the mayor,” Bush told the San Francisco Examiner in an editorial board meeting.

Notably, Ethics Commission records show Mayor Ed Lee was gifted a $6,400 trip to Brazil in March this year, by the San Francisco Center for Economic Development. A group called the Jewish Community Relations Council gifted Lee a $10,730 trip to Israel in April.

San Francisco Treasurer Jose Cisneros has at least 14 trips paid for by private gifts reported to the Ethics Commission, between the beginning of 2015 to present date, the largest number on file for that time period.

Perhaps more pernicious is the issue of “bundling,” Bush said, which Prop. T would also ban.

Many lobbyists collect checks from their clients to then donate in a group to a politician they wish to influence, Bush said, which is called bundling.

“It exaggerates the influence of those seeking approvals” for government contracts, he said. Last election for instance, he said, District 3 supervisor candidate Julie Christensen and sheriff candidate Vicki Hennessy garnered the most “bundled” contributions — often from lobbyists who were known allies of the mayor, who also backed both candidates.

There are some carve-outs in Prop. T.

Nonprofits, for instance, would be allowed to provide gifts of food or refreshment up to $25 for all attendees at a public event, which was an exception crafted after outreach to the community, said SF Ethics Commission Executive Director LeeAnn Pelham.

And the measure only targets lobbyists who have identified specific city officials they intend to lobby. Paul Renne, Ethics Commission chair, told the Examiner that a more broad ban of gifts may not hold up in court, according to commission research.

And, Pelham said, it does not bar lobbyists from donating to independent expenditure committees, though it does bar them from donating to ballot committees held by specific candidates.

One common concern of many ballot-box laws is they require another ballot to amend. Prop. T has language that allows the Ethics Commission or Board of Supervisors to amend the law with a supermajority vote, Renne said.

Reducing lobbyist influence on government is important, Bush said, because, “I feel for a lot of people in San Francisco, it creates a stronger sense that people’s voices matter.”

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