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They're Back: Ethics Resumes Meltdowns

By Joe Lynn

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 in it.

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 and Two 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 remedies.

Next Steps

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 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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