Rating Ethics’ New On Line Disclosure System
Win a Free Lunch!

Written by Joe Lynn (RIP). Posted in Opinion, Politics

Tagged: ,

Published on May 21, 2008 with 2 Comments

By Joe Lynn

May 22, 2008

Warning to political junkies: Black tar in here

Last week, the Ethics Commissioners began their review of San Francisco’s lobbyist ordinance. Coincidentally, the Commission also has launched a new on-line system for disclosing information from lobbyists as well as campaign finance reports. Fog City Journal is asking folks for feedback. While this writer asks you to do the exercises, I don’t think it will take you much time to evaluate the system. Probably less than a minute.

Lobbyist Reports

Put yourself into the shoes of a citizen who wants to research lobbying activities. Go online to the Ethics Commission’s website. You’ll find a link entitled “View Lobbyist Filings and Records.” Click on that link, and see what you can find about any of these issues, all of which have been heavily covered by the media:

1. Supervisor Tom Ammiano’s health coverage measure, Healthy San Francisco;

2. Seven Hills Property permit to develop Mission site for market-rate housing (6-5 vote);

3. Privatization of golf courses;

4. Vote to raise water rates (this is always a big ticket item for the hotel industry);

5. Academy of Art effort to take over the Flower Mart;

6. The WiFi proposal with Google and EarthLink; and

7. Potrero Hill peaker plants;

Who were the lobbyists involved? Are you confident that you’ve identified all of them? How much was spent? On what? Who was lobbied? When?

Readers of Fog City Journal have a greater interest in local government than most folks. So this research should be easier for them to do than others. They will also form an educated opinion as to what kind of information would be important to find and form opinions on how the database can be organized for easier research for the public, e.g. reporting the legislation number at the Board could easily link together all the lobbying efforts on that item.

Consider when you would want to learn the information disclosed in the report. Presumably it would be best to know about it before a vote or action is taken. The Potrero Hill peaker-power plants vote was delayed to May 20. Each proposed measure at the Board of Supervisors has a number assigned. It might be helpful to require lobbyists to report that number when they are lobbying on the measure. All lobbying efforts, pro and con, would then be collected in a link to that number.

After searching the database for the peaker-power plants, how recent are its lobbyist reports? Would it be helpful to have all lobbyist contacts disclosed before a vote is taken?

This project won’t work unless we get feedback from you. The Commission has scheduled an interested persons meeting for May 30 to get feedback. That meeting will be most productive if we can encourage the attendance of folks like you, those who read our local political journals, along with reporters and even other lobbyists.

Campaign Finance

While you’re on the Ethics database, check out the campaign finance database to see how well it’s working. Lennar is spending record sums on Proposition G in the June election. What are they spending the money on, and who’s benefiting? I saw a report indicating Willie Brown is a paid consultant for Lennar. See if you can find out how much, if anything, has been paid to him. And remember when you’re doing this research, you know much more about these matters than the average citizen.

Citizen Feedback

The new system replaces an old one developed when I was on staff at the Ethics Commission. It won recognition from the Center for Governmental Studies for being the best in the nation. It was so good that the Ethics Commission made money off it by licensing it to Sacramento. Other cities around the state were interested in licensing it as well. The Commission only spent $100,000 working on it, and they system was critiqued with systems developed by states whose budgets were in excess of $4 million.

How did Ethics pull it off? In part, by assembling an award-winning team from the City’s Department of Telecommunications and Information Systems (DTIS). Ron Kane became the national expert on campaign finance databases. The Deputy Director, Rod Loucks, needs to be mentioned as well.

A successful database services its business model with the information that makes sense to accomplish the business task. Kane went to the community and asked them for their help in establishing the business rules that needed to be satisfied. He recognized that the experts on the display were those who would use the database. Thus, Ethics reached out aggressively to members of the media, holding several workshops and interviewing individual reporters. There were workshops hosting folks from Common Cause along with citizen gadflies such as Charley Marsteller and David Pilpel. The reason why the database excelled was that users designed it.

And so we come full circle. Now is the time for you, the users, to evaluate how easy the new system is and how quickly it satisfies your research needs.

Win a Free Lunch

I’ll even sweeten the pot. You can win a free lunch with me at the taqueria downstairs from where I live . I’m not a rich man, so I’ll pose only two questions. To win the free lunch, be the first to post the correct answer to one of the two questions below. You also need to explain how you found the answer on the database.

1. How much money has been spent lobbying on the Bayview/Hunter’s Point development proposals over the last two years?

2. Which campaign finance committee had the third largest amount of cash on hand going into this calendar year (at the close of the reporting period ending December 21, 2007)?.

So there are your two questions. Answer them and get a free lunch. If you have problems reaching an answer, describing the problems encountered will be most helpful. Please post your comments and any frustrations with your research on Fog City Journal. Feel free to post anonymously. If you don’t want to post your findings in the comments section, send a letter to the editor in an email. Feel free to discuss what information should be included in the database. For example, if you were involved in an issue, would it be helpful for you to know what the lobbyists on the issue looked like? Knowing who the lobbyists are might help you understand why one of the “citizen” participants is being so obstructive.

Be creative. San Francisco, the center of the tech world, deserves the best system its citizens can envision.

Joe Lynn (RIP)

BIO 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 Bay Guardian called him “a leading voice for reform,” and the San Francisco Examiner called him “the backbone of the Ethics Commission.” While a staff member on the Ethics Commission, he received numerous awards and has been a speaker at many conferences on Good Government. He maintains an active interest in good government laws.

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Win a Free Lunch!
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  1. Note to Luke: Please post my previous post under the Prop 98 report. Thanks.

  2. Plus, these sit-back-and-lazily-let-the-money-do-all-the-work astroturf campaigns are criminal. I think that this kind of diarrhea democracy should set a higher threshold in order for such measures to pass. For example, the soft-money spending on such a campaign should be directly proportionate to the level of support with which the measure needs to pass. Since the soft-money spending on prop 98 is so high and the number of people actually pushing it is so low, 90% of voters should need to vote for it in order for it to pass. It’s giving these Naziesque greedheads a taste of their own Prop 13 medicine.