Foot in two camps or foot in mouth?

This week’s City Hall “sausage-making” will be on public display Thursday when the Planning Commission decides its recommendation on inclusionary housing requirements.

At stake is the amount of housing developers will have to set aside that is affordable to teachers, office workers, restaurant and service industry workers and others in low- to moderate-paying jobs who are the backbone of much of our economy. A decision to make this a lower percent would mean more profits for developers and less housing for San Franciscans who live on a paycheck.

The vote outcome hangs critically on one commissioner who has accepted a full-time position as SPUR’s advocate on San Francisco policies. SPUR is a venerable industry-backed nonprofit that has evolved in recent years to support developers of expensive housing. Styling itself as a “think tank,” SPUR is also is a political player that spent $153,723.54 on ballot campaigns favored by developers, and its executive director led the mayor-backed effort to defeat greater public input on housing and workplace needs last November.

Planning Commissioner Christine Johnson, SPUR’s new full-time advocate, knows the nonprofit’s recommendation for a lower-end requirement because she was a SPUR board member when it was adopted.

The mayor’s position is also no secret: He wants the lower set-aside sought by developers.

What isn’t in doubt is that the mayor wants to make sure Johnson can cast the deciding vote and not have a conflict of interest. In internal emails, made available to Friends of Ethics by the Mayor’s Office, they set out their concern. “… ultimately this is about whether or not this Commissioner stays on and whether or not she will have to recuse herself on issues that are impactful to the Administration,” an email reads.

The unsurprising conclusion, reportedly endorsed by the City Attorney’s Office, is that Johnson faces no conflict as long as SPUR doesn’t directly lobby the Planning Commission. Never mind the fact that, as a nonprofit, SPUR is exempt from lobbying rules, including disclosure of who it contacts or why, which keeps the public in the dark about influence-peddling. It also ignores that our Conflict of Interest standard involves the perception of a conflict as well as a direct financial conflict.

This is the wrong decision. Friends of Ethics, which monitors The City’s ethics policies and practices, calls on Johnson to resign before today’s vote. She is well-regarded and diligent, but her decision to let SPUR be her paymaster changes everything. Johnson said she is not paid directly by SPUR while acting on their behalf, but couldn’t recall the name of the foundation that provided the money. In a slip of the tongue, she also said she can’t resign until the mayor allows her to do so.

San Francisco, more than many other cities, sets policies and oversees city operations through citizens serving as commissioners. At its best, it is a model of citizen empowerment and direct government, transparent and accountable to the community and not to City Hall powers and influencers. Even city supervisors are prohibited from interfering in those decisions. 

Public confidence comes, in part, by requiring commissioners to disclose financial interests and to update this every year. Commissioner Johnson is required to file her financial interests but has failed to do so this year and now is weeks past the deadline.

Ethics Commissioner Quentin Kopp said this is unacceptable. He plans to introduce a provision that will “bar service on a city commission of anyone whose salary or independent contract income is derived partially, or fully, from entities or individuals with applications for permits.” Kopp’s measure is not unique to Johnson but applies equally to any commissioner who votes on issues and whose income is from nonprofit, for-profit or contractor sources with an interest in the decision.

In the end, Johnson’s greatest contribution may not be her service to the mayor’s interest as a planning commissioner, but in her service to the public interest in how she leaves that position and stronger ethics rules. She should resign now.

Larry Bush is a founder of Friends of Ethics, a volunteer group working with the Ethics Commission.

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