Close the City Hall Casino

It’s a sting when an undercover cop gets someone on the record involved in a crime.

But when it is “pay-to-play” politics, it’s not the perp who gets stung.

It’s all of us who are stung — voters, taxpayers and residents.

We pay a corruption tax when pay-to-play results in city contracts, development permits, rewritten tax codes or actions that benefit somebody rather than everybody.

“You got to pay to play here. We got it. We know this. We are the best at this game … better than New York,” an FBI wiretap recorded one mayoral fundraiser, explaining how to handle illegal contributions.

The irony is that in San Francisco, it’s easy to engage in play-to-politics without breaking the law. City Hall is run like a casino, where the game is fixed and the house wins every time.

Want to give 10 times what the law allows? Make the check out to an office-holder’s separate committee, allegedly aimed at a ballot measure. Ron Conway gave Mayor Ed Lee’s committee $20,000 while winning the mayor’s support for a tax change that benefited his investments.

Want to influence the mayor or a supervisor? Give hundreds of thousands of dollars to their special project after they call you. That’s what Kilroy did, giving a total of $1 million while seeking upgrades on permits.

Want to put them up in a five-star hotel? Give money to pay for the trip. That’s what Uber and Airbnb did while jawboning their way out of playing by the rules.

Banned from contributing because you are a contractor? Raise money from others, but don’t put your own check in the stack. In 2011, Mayor Lee refused to tell us who his fundraisers were — so we will never know.

Every one of these ways to circumvent our laws are used regularly, and every one of those loopholes were deliberately created or left open exactly as a legal way for pay-to-play politics.

“You got to pay to play here. … We are the best at this game.”

That appears ready to change.

Three things are lining up: public disgust at political corruption; a more aggressive Ethics Commission; and the arrival of a new commission executive director, LeeAnn Pelham.

Those elements will be needed to overcome Mayor Lee’s insistence that Ethics actually cut its budget, further reducing the chances that The City’s ethics watchdog can bark or bite. Mayor Lee, himself, has remained quiet about the indictments of corruption involving fundraisers for his campaign, and may very well hope the Ethics Commission can be silenced by cutting its budget.

The first sign that the Ethics Commission will end it’s go-along, get-along practices was the Ethics Commission vote to reject the
mayor’s budget cut request and instead callfor an increase so it can be a real Ethics Commission.

They have a lot of catching up to do.

A recent controller’s report put numbers on the table. It reported the Ethics Commission each year can’t handle nearly 50 percent of the complaints it receives and it projects that by next fiscal year, Ethics will be able to handle even less.

When the Ethics Commission has acted, it has mostly been on piddly issues. In five years, they acted on just 37 cases, with 11 of those for using a smaller than required type font on a door hanger or slate card. Mayoral appointees had fines waived for that violation while community activists paid fines of up to $1,000 for the same thing.

Pelham’s budget will beef up enforcement, finally filling a vacant investigator position. She also wants much better public disclosure by finally switching from paper files to electronic files easy for the public to search and sort. Furthermore, she’s called for a policy unit to address loopholes and fixing laws long out of date.

If she can move San Francisco to adopt the kind of pay-to-play protections that existed in Los Angeles, where she was the Ethics executive director for 10 years, it would inhibit if not prevent the kind of corrupt relationship now on trial here.

Los Angeles bans commissioners from raising money for candidates, which is standard practice here. The city also bans contributions from lobbyists, who together have contributed about $500,000 to Mayor Lee since he took office.

San Francisco, most of all, needs to reinstate a law approved by 83 percent of our voters in the 2000 election, which banned those seeking city approval of their projects — whether land variance, franchise, contract or other agreement — from giving contributions, gifts and pay that benefit city officials.

In a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t maneuver, in 2003 the law was amended out of existence with virtually no public awareness of the provisions buried deep in a rewrite of conflict of interest laws.

Mayor Lee should endorse the new Ethics budget proposal, and City Hall should move now — quickly — to act on the loopholes that make City Hall a casino where the game is always fixed.

These loopholes can be closed long before the June election when money once again will find its way out of our pockets and into the pockets of those who run City Hall.

Larry Bush writes in CitiReport and was a speechwriter and policy adviser for former Mayor Art Agnos. He is a founder of Friends of Ethics, a volunteer group working with the Ethics Commission to improve its performance.

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