Voters to decide on increased campaign finance disclosures, new limits on contributions

Ballot measure would restrict donations from developers with projects under consideration by city

Voters will have a chance in November to increase the restrictions on political contributions in the latest campaign finance proposal aimed at pay-to-play politics in San Francisco.

The “Sunlight on Dark Money” ballot initiative, which was placed on the ballot by members of the Board of Supervisors, requires greater disclosure of who is behind campaign ads paid for by political committees known as independent expenditures or Super PACs. Instead of the committee names the largest donors who contributed to those committees and the amounts will have to go on the ads.

At a Board of Supervisors Rules Committee hearing on the measure Monday, Jon Golinger, who works on the measure’s campaign, said the disclosure could have had an impact on recent races.

One ad in the November 2018 District 4 contest, for example, said it was Paid for by Safe and Clean Sunset, with major funding from Progress San Francisco. In the District 6 race an ad disclosed it was paid for by San Franciscans for Change, with major funding by Progress San Francisco.

Progress San Francisco is a state political committee largely funded by developer and tech interests backing moderate candidates’ campaigns.

“Most people in this room know who and what is behind that [Progress San Francisco] committee, but most regular voters would have no reason to know,” Golinger said.

The measure requires disclosure that “pierces the shell of fake name committees like that,” Golinger said.

The measure requires the top three largest donors of the committee paying for the advertisement to disclose their name and the amount contributed to the committee. If any of the three belong to another committee, they must disclose the top two donors of that committee as well.

The measure would also prohibit top executives in development companies from contributing to candidates running for, or current office holders, of the Board of Supervisors, mayor and city attorney while a project they have financial interest in is pending approval, or for 12 months after The City renders a final decision on the project.

Data from the Ethics Commission indicates top executives at one Bay Area developer TMG Partners, whose projects include the controversial 88 Bluxome St. development, made 327 contributions to 32 candidates for Supervisor, Mayor, and City Attorney totaling $148,399 in contributions between June 2008 and December 2018, Golinger said.

The measure also closes a loophole that allowed Limited Liability Corporations or Limited Liability Partnerships to contribute to candidates despite an existing ban on those donations from corporations.

The measure has picked up broad support.

Supervisor Gordon Mar took the lead in placing the measure on the ballot with the signatures of Supervisors Matt Haney, Sandra Fewer, Hillary Ronen and Rafael Mandelman. Board President Norman Yee and Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Vallie Brown are also backing the measure.

“Corporate contributions, pay-to-play politics and undisclosed ‘dark money; donations are all marks against the faith the public places in our democracy and have real concrete consequences,” Mar said.

He said that voters deserve “to know who is trying to buy our elected officials and our votes” and that “addressing the potential appearance of corruption is cause enough to justify the provisions of this initiative.”

In Mar’s election last year, independent expenditures from “nice sounding names like Progress San Francisco” flooded the race, outspending his campaign in support of his opponent.

Mar received $149,226 in public funding and raised $145,862 in campaign contributions for a combined $299,251. About $169,000 in independent expenditures backed Mar as well.

His main challenger, Jessica Ho, however, benefited from $665,000 in support of her campaign by independent expenditures.

A total of $2.1 million in independent expenditures was spent in four supervisor races last November.

Co-author of the bill with Mar is Peter Keane, a legal professor and former chair of the Ethics Commission who stepped down abruptly last year from the body in frustration at its failure to pass increased regulations.

Mayor London Breed has yet to take an official position on the measure.

“We have not reviewed the initiative ordinance yet, but we will soon,” Breed’s spokesperson Jeff Cretan said. “Generally speaking, the mayor is supportive of bringing more transparency to our elections.”

Past former supervisor and retired judge Quentin Kopp, also a former Ethics Commissioner, and former supervisor and assembly member Tom Ammiano is also backing the bill.

Monday’s committee hearing on the measure was informational only, a requirement for measures placed on the ballot through four signatures by the board or by the mayor.

The regulations would go into effect 10-days after the election results were certified, which means they would come in time for the November 2020 election, when six seats on the board are on the ballot.

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