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A Mayoral Scotoma: The Ethics Commission Budget

By Joe Lynn

December 12, 2006

It’s that time of the year when the Mayor releases his budget instructions indicating which departments might get additional funding.

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 Mayor’s 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. It’s 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 Supervisor’s 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 Jury’s 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 don’t know. And if we know that Statements of Economic Interests need policing, why isn’t the Commission funded to do that to begin with? The Grand Jury asked this question two years ago, and Mayor Newsom hasn’t 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 won’t 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, it’s a new season at the Mayor’s 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 joelynn114@hotmail.com


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