Should City Hall lobbying stay secret?

In a few weeks, San Francisco voters can put sunlight on secret influence peddling at City Hall. Proposition C, the expenditure lobbyist measure, restores a law that sheds light on spending to urge others — the public, interest groups, organizations or others — to contact city officials to urge legislative or administrative action.

Just as “disruptive” business models, like Airbnb and Uber, have widened the cracks in our economy, the same approach is affecting the politics of government. Like the business world, political operatives take advantage of gaps to avoid regulation, disclosure and public accountability.

It took Watergate and the resignation of a president to enact laws that allow the public to “follow the money.” Today, we again face a system that hides the money in influence peddling.

There are many routes available to favor politicians — helping to pay for foreign junkets, making contributions at the request of an official to various purposes and donating to special ballot measure committees are just a few that operate far from ready public view in San Francisco.

Billions of dollars in tax policy, development permits, franchises and more are at stake — not to mention how a $7 billion city budget is divided.

“Dark money,” like the Koch brothers or Karl Rove-backed groups, has become a national issue in political campaigns; now it is an issue in lobbying — even in San Francisco.

Take SFBARF, a group backing minimal regulation of short-term rentals that turns up at city hearings and board debates. In a Business Times article, it was confirmed that SFBARF has received thousands of dollars from Airbnb angel investor and Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman. Another group is “Fair to Share.”

They can hide their funding sources and activities because of their nonprofit status. Their donors are secret and their activities are reported only once a year — not while they are underway, when it matters to the public.

Other such efforts are waiting in the wings. Coca-Cola has launched a “nonprofit” of medical and scientist types to argue against bans, like San Francisco’s ban on sugary drinks. Some efforts are even further hidden, as when Comcast contacted nonprofits that received its donations to ask them to speak up on behalf of Comcast in a pending merger decision, or when Amazon asked members to lobby against a California sales tax on Internet sales.

Sometimes called astroturf, lately it has been called the “uber-ization of activism,” mobilizing customers and the public on behalf of your interests and never disclosing the hidden hand behind the hidden money.

In a notable case this year, no pretense was made to hide behind a nonprofit. San Franciscans were deluged with mailers, ads and online appeals urging the public to call City Hall to demand an EIR on a contract for Recology, the trash-hauling company. It never said who paid for it, or how much was paid. Insiders knew it came from Waste Management, which had lost the contract to Recology and was trying an end-run to get the contract for itself.

San Francisco required public disclosure of such spending until 2009, when it was dropped with virtually no explanation of what it would mean other than a reduced workload at the Ethics Commission.

Prop C restores the same provisions as our city had and is similar to what exists in other California cities and at the state capitol.

It has support across The City’s political and ideological spectrum, from former mayor and Sen. Dianne Feinstein and retired Judge Quentin Kopp to supervisors Avalos, Campos, Wiener and Christensen, from past officials like former mayor Art Agnos and former assemblyman Tom Ammiano to the Sierra Club and SF Tomorrow to the San Francisco Coalition of Neighborhoods and Alliance for Jobs.

It was placed on the ballot by the Ethics Commission, exercising its authority to do so for the first time in more than a decade. It comes with the recommendation of the Civil Grand Jury and members of six former civil grand juries.

“San Francisco should join jurisdictions throughout California to require entities that lobby The City and county to show how much and where they spent their money,” said Bob Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies and a principal co-author of the Political Reform Act of 1974 (Proposition 9 passed by 70 percent of California voters). “San Francisco’s government should be as transparent as possible, and this measure goes a long way in ensuring disclosure of who is trying to influence its decisions.”

Still, you won’t have to look any further than your voter handbook to see that there are those who oppose transparency and open government. The surprise is that the opposition is coming from some nonprofits and some unions who have been past allies of good government. Now they fear disclosure when it comes to them.

Clear away the rationales — “we weren’t asked”; “we are good people doing good work”; “we think this would chill our advocacy”; “it means more paperwork” — and it comes down to one thing: Include us out.

They hope voters will defeat this and, instead, the Board of Supervisors will rewrite it to exempt them from the law. That’s just what they accomplished at the board when the law on directly lobbying city officials was rewritten. After months of closed-door negotiations, they won an exemption for all 501(c)(3) and many 501(c)(4) nonprofits.

It is a total blackout of public disclosure and accountability: It applies to Karl Rove, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Koch Brothers and to the groups trying to kill environmental regulations just as much as to those advocating for affordable housing or human services. In an effort to make sure they protected themselves from disclosing their lobbying, they choose to leave the rest of us unprotected from secret influence peddling coming from every quarter.

It is because of such political deal-making that the voters entrusted the Ethics Commission to put measures on the ballot without undergoing the trimming, pulling and pushing of City Hall’s self-interest.

Prop C includes a careful distinction, recognizing the rights of nonprofits and unions while also including their obligations. They are exempt when they communicate to their own members, no matter how many thousands there may be. They are exempt if they spend under $2,500 a month to lobby the public to in turn lobby City Hall. They are exempt if they don’t ask the public to contact City Hall but just alert the public to a concern they have. Unions are exempt in all contract negotiations and workplace conditions as well.

But they are right in one important respect: This law treats everyone the same without special exemptions based on who you are or whom you know.

Now it will be the voters who decide if that is fair.

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.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated from its original version to correct the fact that SFBARF has reportedly received thousands of dollars from Airbnb angel investor and Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, not an Airbnb executive.

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