San Francisco looks to increase government transparency at City Hall

Many people working in the shadows of City Hall to land government contracts, obtain permits and sway decision-makers could soon be forced into the public eye.

Permit expeditors and attorneys doing routine business with city departments can operate with little public scrutiny under The City’s existing regulations, but City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Board of Supervisors President David Chiu announced a proposal Tuesday to expose more of the inner workings of City Hall.

“The public demands integrity in what happens here in City Hall,” Herrera said. “And the biggest criticism that we hear … is that there’s a lack of accountability, a lack of transparency, and a lack of openness with respect to how business is done.”

Under the proposal, more people would have to register with the Ethics Commission and report their actions.
The definition of a “lobbyist” would expand to encompass more lobbying activity. Attorneys currently escape having to report their lobbying efforts, but the proposal would mostly close that loophole.

Permit expeditors who navigate the planning, building inspection, and entertainment and public works departments would have to register with the Ethics Commission and report their clients and contacts.

Developers sometimes pressure the Board of Supervisors by donating to local nonprofits who in turn advocate for a project’s approval. For large developments, those where an environmental impact report is required, developers would have to report nonprofit donations totaling in excess of $5,000 to a nonprofit.

Also, the proposal requires increased oversight on contracts within city departments for professional services and would prohibit significant changes in their value without written approval from department heads.

“We are not saying that these activities can’t or shouldn’t occur,” Chiu said. “We are saying that it’s important for the public to know when they occur. That transparency is critical.”

Both Herrera and Chiu said the legislation was not aimed at any individual in particular. But the proposed changes do come amid sustained criticism of the lack of transparency involving Mayor Ed Lee and his well-connected political entourage.

There’s Lee’s friend Walter Wong, a building permit expeditor; Chinatown Chamber of Commerce consultant Rose Pak; former Mayor Willie Brown, an attorney; and Silicon Valley angel investor Ron Conway — all of whom attempt to steer government affairs but escape existing reporting requirements. It’s unclear if the proposal would begin to capture their political maneuverings.

The proposal also comes as San Francisco is experiencing an economic resurgence, driven in part by a booming tech industry, which has intensified development pressures.

Lee said Tuesday that he had yet to review the legislation but that “I am open to it. … We already have pretty strong laws on the books, but there’s always room for improvement.”

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