I’ll let you in on a little secret: The one thing that dishonest politicians hate more than anything else is independent oversight and accountability.
You should see the tortured logic and mental gymnastics that these politicians and their lobbyists will use to explain why independent oversight is good for other people but not for them. I’ve been fighting for sunshine and accountability reforms for more than 22 years and I’ve heard every excuse in the book.
This November, San Francisco is finally catching up to other major cities like New York, Seattle, Portland and Toronto and will be voting on whether or not to create an Office of the Public Advocate.
A Public Advocate is an elected official whose sole job is to make sure you’re getting fair treatment from your local government. If you’re mistreated, ignored or bullied by local government, the PA is empowered to stand up for you and get results. It’s a complaint and whistleblower department that investigates and fights for you.
Well, get ready for the tsunami of bull from the people in local government who like things just the way they are. For years, city departments have been run with little to no accountability to the people of San Francisco, and there are more than a few people in City Hall who want to keep it that way.
Here’s a taste of what you’ll hear from the old boys club that wants to keep things oversight- and accountability-free:
“It costs too much money.”
Nonsense. Public Advocates save money. Last year alone, New York’s Public Advocate saved the city $170 million dollars by investigating bad city contracts and cutting waste. One of the Public Advocate’s main functions is to investigate, audit and make recommendations on how the city can save money through common sense reforms. The .03 percent of the annual budget that will be apportioned for the Public Advocate is a good investment and won’t result in additional taxes.
“Government is too big already.”
This one’s a favorite of my old Republican colleagues up in Sacramento. Let me put it this way: In the last four years, Mayor Ed Lee, without any vote from the people of San Francisco, created four new city offices: The Office of Innovation; The Office of Short Term Rentals; The Office of Housing Opportunity, Partnership and Engagement; and just last month, another Office of Homelessness. These new offices, which cost The City millions every year, report only to the mayor. For Lee’s allies to be against creating an office that actually holds city departments accountable and works directly for the people is disingenuous at best and hypocritical at worst.
“We already have an Ethics Commission.”
The Ethics Commission has only one job and that’s to fine city employees who are breaking laws having to do with campaign donations, lobbying and campaigning. The Ethics Commission doesn’t care if you got an unfair ticket. It doesn’t care if your streets aren’t being cleaned; it doesn’t care if the Planning Department won’t call you back, or the bus never stops. The Ethics Commission doesn’t replace a Public Advocate and neither, for that matter, does the District Attorney or City Attorney. All of these offices have specific duties that are separate from the responsibilities of a Public Advocate.
“This is just creating a job for politicians.”
Public Advocates or Ombudsmen exist all over the world, and good government advocates and I have been working on creating an office of the Public Advocate in San Francisco for more than 15 years. It’s especially important now because City Hall has never been more unresponsive to the people it’s meant to serve. I assure you there will be no shortage of candidates of all political stripes for the people of San Francisco to vote for in the election next November.
“Elections already hold politicians accountable.”
Say a San Francisco resident is at the end of his or her rope because a city department has unfairly fined them. They call the mayor and his or her supervisor, and for whatever reason, they won’t help. If you think the person should just pay the fine and wait up to four years until the next election to vote for a new mayor or supervisor, you really shouldn’t be in public service. Having a resource to turn to when your government fails you is just common sense.
I’m proud to be part of a growing collation of neighborhood organizations, labor, good government advocates and elected officials from across the aisle that want to restore checks and balances to San Francisco with the creation of a Public Advocate’s Office. Bureaucratic ineptitude, government waste and apathy toward constituents dramatically decrease in cities with a Public Advocate and that’s exactly what our city needs right now.
And as for that old boys club that doesn’t want change — well, my mother always said don’t take health advice from a funeral home director. I’d be very suspicious of any politician that is afraid of the Public Advocate and the transparency and oversight they bring. Ask yourself this: During a time when The City has so many problems, who’s going to profit from keeping things exactly the same?
Tom Ammiano is a former state assemblyman, representing the 17th District, which covers San Francisco.