Prop. C calls for greater transparency

Signaling a new era for the Ethics Commission, the body has placed Proposition C on the November ballot to require more disclosure of lobbying activity.

The commission decided to place the measure on the ballot itself — notably a rarely used process — instead of recommending the Board of
Supervisors approve the law, for fear the political process of the board would result in a watered-down measure.

In making its case for the increased lobbying regulations, the commission pointed to such examples as large technology companies like Airbnb exerting influence on City Hall through funding outside groups to contact city officials or turn up to testify at public meetings. Financial transactions bankrolling this sort of political activity currently isn’t disclosed to the public.

That would change under Prop. C Expenditure Lobbyists. The measure would require any person or business, including nonprofits and labor groups, that spends $2,500 or more in a month to urge others to lobby city government to register with The City and disclose the activity.

Elena Schmid, head of the civil grand jury that issued the June 2014 report on the Ethics Commission, said during a San Francisco Examiner editorial meeting, “With the kind of money that we got out there these days, the only thing that the voters have is transparency, and that is what Prop. C brings.”

There is no organized campaign against the measure, but nonprofits represented by the San Francisco Human Services Network and the Council of Community Housing Organizations are opposing the measure. Among their arguments is that the requirements would have “chilling effect” and reduce their advocacy efforts.

“Adding new bureaucratic hurdles and fiscal liabilities for small organizations will drive many nonprofits out of public policy debates, and consequently disempower low-income and vulnerable populations,” these groups wrote in an opinion piece published in the Examiner.

But supporters argue the burden isn’t as great a burden as they portray and that all lobbying activity should be captured for the sake of transparency.

Larry Bush, who has long fought for greater ethics regulations, said the disclosure requirement is needed more now than ever. “Citizens United has pretty much freed up the corporate world to engage in unlimited spending for political purposes,” Bush said. “And secondly, because of the emergence of the disruptive economies.”

The measure has support from both sides of the political aisle. For example, Supervisor David Campos supports the measure, as does Supervisor Scott Wiener.

Paul Renne, chairman of the Ethics Commission, said that “over the last couple of years, we’ve had criticism from the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury on two occasions that we have not exercised that power” of placing measures on the ballot to further regulation of political activity.

With the retirement of John St. Croix, the commission is searching for a new executive director. The job ad listing listed several criteria, such as, “Develops recommendations and advises Commission members regarding laws, policies and activities” and “create a larger and more proactive enforcement program, with a goal of increased transparency and compliance. Be more aggressive with investigations and prosecution of ethics violations.”

Last year, 64 lobbying firms had registered with the Ethics Commission comprising 94 active lobbyists. It’s unclear to what extent the registrants would increase if the measure is approved. The measure would require The City to spend $560,000 to launch the new reporting system with an annual budget of $15,000.

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