They're Back: Ethics Resumes Meltdowns
August 9, 2007
Part 3: Culture of the Ethics Commission; Next Steps
The Mayor and City Attorney are not solely responsible for the
failures at Ethics. There is no doubt that their failure to support
the Commission has led to a culture at the Commission that overlooks
the serious in favor of the trivial, that conducts politically
targeted investigations, and has no expressed intent of a hard
look at its failures.
It is time for Ethics Staff and Commissioners to own up to their
own culture of failure.
· The Ethics Commission Staff
Until there are credible hearings on the culture of the enforcement
staff, we are left to speculate as to whether they are acting
from any ill motive. I personally doubt such a sinister explanation
at least as so far as the Executive Director, Mr. St. Croix.
St. Croix has been a good administrator and a good student on
the organizational problems that he inherited. He deserves credit
for the initiative he took in identifying potentially criminal
activity in the D6 election last year. The investigation in that
case, however, was not the result of his staff's work; it was
really handled by Robert Haaland who skillfully put together a
slam dunk case.
Ethics Commission Executive Director, John St. Croix.
The disturbing part of the D6 scandal is that we've heard no
more of it. It may be that Newsom campaign treasurer and attorney,
Jim Sutton is getting another free pass since he was implicated
Attorney James Sutton
It is when Mr. St. Croix has relied on advice of his senior staff
that there have been big problems. At some point he has to recognize
that staff's expertise has no clothes. (See Parts One
of this series for staff's record.) He needs to prune the deadwood
and bring in competent staff.
St. Croix may even manage to get a free ride through the present
troubles. However, he must be held personally accountable for
any future mistakes by the staff he is vouching for. Without any
change in staffing, we can predict more errors in the future,
some altering election results again. We do not have the luxury
of waiting for those future harms. That was the option taken with
the last executive director, and we are still paying the price
of choosing to wait.
· The Commissioners
With the exception of Eileen Hansen , the Commissioners have
shown no curiosity over how the Commission works. Instead, month
after month they get spoon fed by staff whose professional incompetence
is starkly evident. Independent views are not sought out. Views
from the reform community are not sought out. Instead, the commissioners
and staff hear from Sutton's office, and the attorney for the
Committee on Jobs who attend the untelevised meetings faithfully.
There have been ample warning signs of staff's incompetence.
One only needs to look to the very first two public hearings in the history of the Commission two years ago. The Commission dismissed
both of them on the grounds that staff had not pled the accusations
correctly. Then the Commissioners learned of another professional
breakdown when they learned that they had given a hardship discount
to Andrew Lee, a millionaire. Yet the Commission has held no hearings
to tighten up the shop after these embarrassments. These three
cases would have been red flags to most reasonable people. The
Commission now has more red flags than PacBell Park had in the
2002 World Series.
It is shameful that there has never in the history of the Commission
been an independent investigation of the troubled enforcement
division. And it shows.
The Enforcement Division actually contends that the Commissioners
cannot supervise active investigations. Equal inattention has
been paid to closed investigations. The Commissioners have been
content to go along with that rather than considering the options
available to them. Given repeated scandals that even changed election
results, a functional Commission would have acted differently.
An important marker for the future is whether the Commission
clings to its past methodology of having staff explain why they
are incompetent. Relying on staff to clean up their own messes
has been and is a recipe to future disasters. At some point, staff
with a terrible record is not where you should look for smart
Ethics has become the nightmare our Cassandras had prophesied.
Whether intentional or not, Ethics has inserted itself improperly
into the outcome of elections and has become the principal foe
of grassroots participation in San Francisco to the delight of
those authorities who have refused to fund the department appropriately.
There is no simple solution. The problems at Ethics cannot be
cured by money alone. As one reformer told me, "if we give
Ethics ten times the resources it now has, they may just be ten
times as incompetent."
The spirit of reform must exist in the agency of reform. When
the founders of the Ethics Commission learned that Mayor Jordon
would not commit resources to support their dream, a spirit of
timidity crept into the Commission, and its legacy is manifest.
Staff can always blame mistakes on lack of resources. The culture
of the Commission promotes acceptance of serious error.
However, we cannot sit by and let this sore fester again. The
political support for good government is declining in the face
of the news from Ethics. We need to check whether the patient
is still viable.
That will take some time. For now, we can ask the Board of Supervisors
to support televising the Commission and providing the Commissioners
with support in the form of a Commission Secretary. That additional
support will do no harm. It will aid the Commissioners if they
choose to show their mettle. And it will allow the public an opportunity
to assess the viability of the very sick patient.
In a few weeks, we will have gathered some more vital signs of
the patient as we learn how it will handle these issues. Will there be
staff changes? Will there be open hearings addressing these problems?
Perhaps, just perhaps, Ethics will surprise us.
We still must begin to consider whether any heroic measures are
appropriate to save the patient if the signs are bad. Dismantling
the Commission would be fairly simple. Filing officer and perhaps
public finance duties could be assigned to Elections. Sunshine
could be assigned to a new Sunshine Commission. Enforcement can
be returned to the more politically responsive City Attorney and
District Attorney, at least for now. It would take a Charter amendment,
but many folks have approached me suggesting we consider the option.
I don't know of anyone who follows the Ethics Commission closely
who is committed to any plan. Full public discussion of the role
of the Commission needs to be heard on how it interacts with our
grass roots culture and what options there are to its present
structure. One thing is for sure. The Commission's response to
its returned poltergeists will do much to inform those discussions.
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 Citys 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 email@example.com