Editorial: In season of corruption, S.F. leaders must embrace transparency rules

Breed’s lagging compliance with city ordinance raises questions

By The Examiner Editorial Board

With the ongoing corruption scandal at City Hall set to crescendo in 2022, this seems like a good time for our elected officials to embrace transparency and do everything in their power to build up public trust in local government.

Mayor London Breed can start by fully complying with an ordinance designed to keep voters informed about who wields influence in The City. San Francisco Administrative Code 67.29-5 requires top city officials to provide details of their meetings. Unfortunately, as Examiner reporter Jeff Elder reported last week, the mayor and her staff do not always comply with this good government practice.

Elder reported the mayor “has repeatedly failed to comply with a city ordinance that requires her to tell the people of San Francisco what she discusses in meetings — some of them conducted with powerful interest groups.” His story highlighted several recent meetings with monied interests that, for some unknown reason, remained conspicuously vague on Breed’s official public calendar.

Breed’s schedule did not include the required details for a Dec. 2 meeting with the Union Square Alliance, an Oct. 19 meeting with executives from a development company working on a controversial housing project at Hunters Point and an Oct. 15 meeting with representatives from Bloomberg Philanthropies.

While these omissions may be the result of error or poor record-keeping, they come just months after a city commission found Breed in violation of the ordinance.

“The Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, a city committee that hears transparency issues, voted 9-1 in June to find Breed in violation of a city ordinance requiring her to say what is discussed in closed meetings,” wrote Elder. “At the time, Hank Heckel, the mayor’s compliance officer, suggested the mayor would be more transparent going forward, and agreed with the task force that ‘just saying a meeting is with somebody is not sufficient.’”

For the Mayor’s Office to persist in defying the ordinance after getting called out by the committee suggests either a contempt for transparency measures or a case of chronic disorganization. Either way, it’s a bad look for Breed.

“Something’s wrong here,” Supervisor Connie Chan told Elder.

“That’s serious and it’s extremely important,” said Arieann Harrison, an environmental activist in Hunters Point, of the mayor’s failure to disclose the details of her meeting with executives from real estate development firm Five Point Holdings.

“That meeting was generally about the development project at Candlestick Point and not the remediation at Hunters Point Shipyard,” a Breed spokesman told Elder, saying the mayor supports “total transparency.”

That’s good to hear. Hopefully, the mayor and her staff will follow up by complying with the simple ordinance to provide details on her meetings within three days after they occur.

Such steps are crucial during this season of federal indictments at City Hall. On Dec. 17, the news broke that former Department of Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru has agreed to plead guilty to fraud and also has admitted to taking bribes from both a “former government employee” and a “prominent developer” in San Francisco.

The ongoing bribery and corruption scandal already has ensnared a number of former city employees. It has also produced the indictments of two executives from the waste management company Recology, which agreed to a $36 million fine after its subsidiaries admitted to conspiring to bribe Nuru.

The indictments have exposed a broken system in which bribe-induced favoritism and cash gifts play an outsized role in certain levels of The City’s government. In a separate matter, the mayor agreed to pay an ethics fine of $8,292 in August after admitting she improperly accepted $5,600 worth of free car repairs from Nuru, whom she once dated.

Nothing suggests Breed had any involvement with the escalating corruption scandal engulfing Nuru. Yet the whole episode has cast a cloud of suspicion over City Hall, and the narrative appears set to continue — and possibly even expand — in 2022. That’s why all San Francisco public officials should be vigilant in complying with rules and laws meant to ensure voters their government is following the rules and working for them.

A few sentences of detail about the mayor’s meetings should not be too much to ask, especially after the mayor already has gotten dinged for omitting required public information. With the end of 2021, the mayor’s office should turn over a new leaf and develop a system for complying with the ordinance in a timely fashion. Failure to provide such basic information raises uncomfortable questions The City can ill afford at this sensitive time.

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