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SF Ethics Commission agrees to put lobbyist disclosure measure on November ballot

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Pointing to large technology companies like Airbnb, which drum up influence through outside groups for policy changes at City Hall, the Ethics Commission voted unanimously Monday to place a measure on the November ballot to expand the definition of lobbyists and require more disclosure.

When it comes to the most contentious policy debates at the Board of Supervisors or other government bodies, there are times when large groups of people are mobilized to attend government meetings. Some are trained and organized, and even transported on buses.

Little of the spending around these efforts is known to the public. But that would change under the measure.

For the first time, The City would require registration and reporting of what’s called expenditure lobbying. Any person or group that spends $2,500 or more a month on efforts to have others attempt to influence city officials would have to register with the Ethics Commission and file spending reports, including notes on the specific proposal he or she were trying to influence, such as the city permit number or title of the legislation.

The spending covered under the proposed ballot measure includes public relations, media relations, advertising, public outreach, research, investigation, reports, analyses and studies. The regulation would apply to for-profit companies and nonprofits.

Ethics Commissioner Peter Keane, the City Attorney’s appointment to the commission, proposed the measure. He said it was in response to criticism by a recent civil grand jury report and the Friends of Ethics, a group led by Larry Bush that calls for greater transparency, to improve oversight of lobbyist activity.

Keane said it was meant to bring some sunshine to those activities “rather than it being clothed in some sort of rather deceptive type of good citizens in favor of apple pie and motherhood for so-and-so.”

Airbnb, for example hired consulting firm 50 + 1 Strategies to drum up support for legislation to legalize short term rentals. There was also the Home Sharers group which staged pro- Airbnb rallies.

Beverly Hayon, an ethics commissioner appointed by mayor, voted for the placing the measure on the ballot, but expressed some reservations about the need.

“The public is very well aware that there are players nefarious or good players behind the scenes pushing agendas,” Hayon said. “We are not stupid. I am not convinced that more regulations are somehow going to change this scenario. People are always trying to influence our elected officials.”

But Keane noted that similar regulations are in place in other cities like San Diego, and said when it comes to transparency San Francisco is falling short.

The action by the commission is seen by some as a sign the body is becoming more assertive in its role. The measure also addresses other criticism that the commission has lacked the resources to enforce campaign and lobbying rules.

It would require city-funding in the first year of $560,000 with an annual appropriation of $15,000.

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