Ethics Commission defying Mayor Ed Lee on requested budget cuts

San Francisco’s Ethics Commission said Tuesday it would defy Mayor Ed Lee’s request of city departments to cut spending by 1.5 percent, arguing the regulatory body needs greater investment to stamp out corruption, not less.

The commission’s stance has placed the commission’s new head LeeAnn Pelham, just two days on the job, in a difficult position. The commission, like all city departments, has until Feb. 22 to submit a budget proposal to the mayor.

The mayor said the cuts are needed to close a projected $100 million budget deficit for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The shortfall, city officials say, is driven largely by pension costs — despite a booming economy with flourishing real estate and technology sectors.

Ethics Commissioner Peter Keane said that when The City is generating “record revenues” there’s no justification to impose cuts on the regulatory agency. “To have the mayor say, ‘Even though we have this big pot of money you all still have to cut,’ I see no justification for that except … to keep this committee as a completely castrated body without any kind of ability to do its job.”

The Ethics Commission has faced criticism in the past for failure to more proactively investigate and audit campaign activity and ethic laws. A civil grand jury report dubbed the commission the “sleeping watchdog” in 2011. But with a new executive director, the commission is signaling a new era. Part of that effort is standing up for increased funding.

Keane said the commission should submit an increased budget proposal, a position supported by other members of the commission. “It’s going to be a lot more than the budget that we have now. It is not going to be any 1.5 percent cut. Let’s submit that budget to the Mayor’s Office with a forceful justification of why we need those increases and let’s fight for it and let’s get it.”

Ethics Commissioner Benedict Hur said, “We’ve really been struggling on the investigative side,” noting the commission has had one of its three investigator positions vacant since 2011. He also said, “It takes far too long for audits to take place.”

Pelham, the new executive director, said she needed more time to address the budget but spoke broadly about the need to “right size” the department. “Right size may mean that we do need to articulate the need very clearly for additional resources,” Pelham said.

“Budgets are always fundamentally political choices about where very limited resources go, but it is important I think for us to make our best case,” she added.

Pelham worked for 19 years with the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, serving as a staffer and then between 2001 to 2011 as the executive director. She replaced retired San Francisco Ethics Commission Executive Director John St. Croix.

A staff report said a 1.5 percent reduction for the Ethics Commission would result in a cut of $39,402 next fiscal year. The Ethics Commission has an operating budget of $2.6 million, of which $2.2 million is for staff. The department has 19 positions, with five vacant.

Keane said that “The City has slid into a fair amount of corruption, tremendously soft corruption but corruption. It’s pay to play. It’s a game of bribery, whether or not we can actually identify it as bribery, it’s there.

“Our group is the group that should be ferreting that out and getting on top of that and reversing that.”

The Ethics Commission plans to discuss its budget proposal further at a Jan. 25 meeting.

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