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SF political watchdog beats complaint over open meeting laws

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The Ethics Commission took a vote without public notice five months ago on whether Planning Commissioner Christine Johnson was engaging in a conflict of interest as the head of pro-development group SPUR. (Cindy Chew/2009 S.F. Examiner)
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Five months ago, the political watchdog in San Francisco may have run afoul of good government rules when it tried to block a planning commissioner from voting on crucial housing legislation.

The District Attorney’s Office is investigating whether the Ethics Commission violated open meeting laws when it took a vote without public notice against Planning Commissioner Christine Johnson for a potential conflict of interest.

But on Wednesday, the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force rejected a complaint accusing the Ethics Commission of the same violation. While the task force voted 5-3 to uphold the complaint, it needed six votes to pass.

The controversy has raised questions about whether San Francisco needs to tighten conflict of interest rules for those who serve on city commissions. It’s not uncommon for city commissioners to hold jobs outside of City Hall.

The Ethics Commission invoked a little-used section of the Sunshine Ordinance to vote to urge Johnson to recuse herself from voting on proposed affordable housing requirements for developers. At the time, Johnson had just been hired to lead a pro-development group called SPUR.

Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY) leader Laura Foote Clark, who filed the complaint, suggested that the Ethics Commission intentionally left the item off the agenda so that Johnson could not defend herself.

“They have been allowed to be filled with politically motivated individuals who have been able to drop the hammer on whoever they deem to be a political opponent and that is quite frankly outrageous,” Clark said.

Clark claimed that Ethics Commissioner Quentin Kopp, a former supervisor, state senator and retired judge, knew about Johnson’s SPUR job before the meeting, and therefore the item could have been agendized in advance.

She also provided an email showing that Friends of Ethics member Larry Bush emailed the Ethics Commission in March informing them about the potential conflict of interest.

But Ethics Chair Peter Keane said he did not read the email. He also said the Ethics Commission did not know about the impending vote at the Planning Commission until after the agenda was published.

“I didn’t scrupulously read that email and their reference to Christine Johnson because I didn’t know who Christine Johnson was,” Keane said. “I have no memory of that, I’m sure I hadn’t even read it.”

While Keane argued that the Ethics Commission did not violate the Sunshine Ordinance, he admitted that the voting process could have been handled better.

For city bodies to take action on items not on the agenda, the Sunshine Ordinance requires a two-thirds vote to establish an emergency before taking up the matter. The Ethics Commission did not take that initial vote before voting against Johnson.

“I admit to you that it would have been better to do that,” Keane said. “That’s what I should have done. So that is a very small matter of form over any kind of substance. I should have done that, and in that sense I was lax as a chair and I admit to that and apologize.”

Task force member Dave Maass voted to uphold the complaint because the Ethics Commission failed to establish an emergency with an initial vote.

“There’s two issues here, one is whether they could do this and the other is whether they went about it the right way,” Maass said. “Mr. Keane has admitted that he did not go about it the right way. The vote should have been taken.”

Task force Vice Chair Chris Hyland voted against the complaint, arguing that the Ethics Commission satisfied the requirements because no member objected the action.

“At the end of the day there was a vote — unanimous — to send this letter,” Hyland said.

Despite concerns over a conflict of interest, Johnson still serves on the Planning Commission even though she said she would eventually step down.

“While I was considering taking a role at SPUR, the City Attorney advised me that since there was no direct conflict between the two roles, I would not need to step down from the Planning Commission, but that there were steps I should try to take to avoid the perception of conflict,” Johnson said April 27.

“Ultimately, I decided that due to the intense time conflict between the two roles, it was best to eventually transition off the Planning Commission,” she continued.

Johnson did not appear at the task force meeting or respond to a request for comment Thursday.

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