A Mayoral Scotoma: The Ethics Commission Budget
December 12, 2006
Its that time of the year when the Mayor releases his budget
instructions indicating which departments might get additional
Two years ago, the Civil Grand Jury let everyone in on an open
secret: the Ethics Commission is woefully underfunded. The Board
of Supervisors responded with Prop. C reducing the Mayors
budget role, but the public voted against it trusting that the
Mayor would correct the problem.
Well, the Mayor has done next to nothing.
The Commission is still in triage getting about half the budget
that it needs. Any comparison of the San Francisco Ethics Commission
to those in New York or Los Angeles show the Commission is funded
at only 50% of their standards. Others argue credibly that the
underfunding is more like 67%. The Commission itself last year
told the Mayor that it needed a staff of 27. Present staffing
is about 50% of that. Its therefore no surprise that San
Francisco has more of a money problem in politics than any other
local jurisdiction in the country. And this last election shows
us that the problem is getting worse.
How important is the job that Ethics does? In the D6 Supervisors
race this year, big money spent historic sums (some say over $1,000,000)
to get Rob Black elected. But Chris Daly was hamstrung by his
promise to limit spending and could not meet fire with fire. Big
money was legally required to tell the Ethics Commission about
the spending so that the publicly financed Chris Daly campaign
would be freed from this promise.
According to anti-Daly polls, Black had taken a 20 point lead
while the Commission investigated. Finally the scam became apparent
to the Commission leading to the ceiling being lifted. Daly eventually
won by 9 points, making a 29 point swing, a swing made possible
by Commission action no matter how belatedly. A 29 point swing.is
ample evidence of the need to make sure that the Commission is
working at full strength.
Take another example from the Grand Jurys report, the failure
of the Commission to police the thousands of Statements of Economic
Interests filed by our elected officials and top bureaucrats.
That flared up four years ago to bite then-Supervisor Newsom.
It flared up again this year with a candidate in D4. The Commission
admitted it did not have the resources to complete an investigation
before the November election.
Did this affect that election? We dont know. And if we
know that Statements of Economic Interests need policing, why
isnt the Commission funded to do that to begin with? The
Grand Jury asked this question two years ago, and Mayor Newsom
hasnt given an additional penny to this program.
So I have a bone to pick with the Mayor.
He is blind to the problems at Ethics. In his September talk
at USF on Ethics and Government, Newsom hardly mentioned Ethics
Commission issues much less its budget crisis. Look at his Policy
Pledges when he took office. There were over 350, but not one
dealt with good government at Ethics.
This strikes me as sad because the Ethics Commission promotes
best business practices for government. It is the quality control
of our public life. Yet Newsom wont add the resources it
so sorely needs to function. It jars more with his wish to be
known as a reformer than anything else possibly could.
So, its a new season at the Mayors Budget Office,
and with a new season new hopes spring.
Dear Santa, goes my letter. At no time has
there been a bigger disconnect between government and the people
than in this age of Abu Ghraib. We need to be sensitive to that.
We need to get people proud of government. Best practices in the
governing of our City make sense. Please help Mayor Newsom to
give the Ethics Commission a decent budget.
Joe Lynn was the campaign finance and budget officer of
the San Francisco Ethics Commission from 1998 to 2003. From 2003
to 2006, he served as one of the five Ethics Commissioners. The
San Francisco Examiner called him the backbone of the Ethics
Commission. While on staff, he received numerous awards
and has been a speaker at many conferences on Good Government.
He maintains an active interest in good government laws. Email
Joe at email@example.com
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