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They're Back: Ethics Resumes Meltdowns

By Joe Lynn

August 8, 2007

Part Two: An Insider's Evaluation of the Players

A. Responsibilities and Evaluations

The enforcement division of the Ethics Commission operates in the greatest secrecy available to an agency as the result of extraordinary Charter provisins. Thus it is rare when the public can see it in operation. Last month, three separate decisions were revealed, each indicating professional incompetence at best and politically motivated decisions at worse. For an agency that can affect the outcomes of elections, this is unacceptable. An evaluation of the players will help us understand what is going on.

1. The Mayor

The Mayor has control of the Ethics Commission budget. His budgets have had Ethics in triage for over three years. He never responded to the Civil Grand Jury's report two years ago of chronic underfunding. As recently as a few months ago, the Ethics Executive Director reported he had less than 50% of the staff that he needed.

The first result of this starvation diet has been to extirpate the San Francisco's grass roots community. Big money represented by the Mayor's attorney, Mr. Sutton, can successfully navigate the waters at Ethics. The bad decisions from enforcement have unanimously been in his favor. It is the grass roots folks who are under attack. Just three years ago, there were close to 300 committees active on the Ethics records. While there was some bloat in that number because of defunct committees, there are now about 160 active committees. The word is getting out. Stay low politically or face Ethics. Our grassroots culture is under fire.

Big money is trying to control San Francisco politics. Two recent news stories make the point. The first story concerns Dallas with a population at 1.2 million almost twice San Francisco's 750,000. In the recently concluded race for Mayor in Dallas, the winner spent a record $3.2 million. Compare that with Gavin Newsom's $6 million spent four years ago. Newsom's $6 million figure inflates to $10 million when you include an additional $4 million in spending by ostensibly third-party sources to get him elected.

The second story involves Barack Obama who now has the national reputation as the greatest fundraiser ever, raising $32.5 million this last quarter to run in an election with 300 million residents. Adjust that for a population of 750,000 and you would need to raise $82,000 in three months. Mr. Newsom raised ten times that rate in 2003.

Big money in San Francisco is obscenely high. It is required by the now-declining grass roots culture. Of course, there is an even more sinister reason to keep Ethics underfunded. The Ethics Commission has never had resources necessary to perform a complete audit on a campaign the size of Gavin Newsom's. This may explain why he and so many other big money interests represented by Jim Sutton constantly get the free passes from Ethics. Ethics is frozen in the headlights.

2. The City Attorney

Historically the City Attorney's advice to the Ethics Commission has been right-wing, timid and hid from the public. However, recently there are signs that the City Attorney is taking a more progressive stand with respect to their advice to Ethics. With respect to the enforcement division, the City Attorney has never assigned anyone to Ethics with any background in discovery or investigations. This is in stark contrast to the District Attorney who has expressed interest in providing the young investigators at Ethics with mentorship. Unfortunately her interest has been met with silence from Ethics.

Tomorrow, we can discuss the culture at the Ethics Commission itself and conclude with a discussion of whether the political culture in San Francisco can afford continued support of the Ethics Commission.

Tomorrow: The Culture of the Ethics Commission; Next Steps

Joe Lynn was the campaign finance officer and office manager 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,” and the Bay Guardian named him “a leading voice for reform.”While on staff, Joe was named SF Government Employee of the Year by the SF Weekly in 2003. Mayor Willie Brown gave him two awards for his mentorship work He also received two commendations from the Board of Supervisors, one initiated by then-Supervisor Gavin Newsom and the other by then-Board President Matt Gonzalez. The Northern California Society of Professional Journalists presented him the James Madison Freedom of Information Award in 2003. He managed the City’s electronic campaign finance program (named best in the country by the Center for Governmental Studies) and the conflict of interest program (named best in the state by the Montclarion). He maintains an active interest in good government laws. Email Joe at joelynn114@hotmail.com




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