Seeking a watchdog’s watchdog

Pub date April 12, 2011
WriterRebecca Bowe

When cash pumps through the guts of city politics, the Ethics Commission is charged with keeping track of it all to help members of the public follow the money. But what happens when the public loses faith in the ethics of the Ethics Commission?

In the run-up to a hotly contested mayoral race, in a city marked by rough-and-tumble politics influenced by moneyed power brokers, the function of this local-government watchdog agency is especially critical — and to hear some critics tell it, the Ethics Commission needs reform if it is to perform as an effective safeguard against corruption.

So it was hardly surprising that an April 5 discussion at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting about whom to appoint to the Ethics Commission featured a low-level tug-of-war with some potentially high-level implications.

Sup. Eric Mar proposed that the board consider Allen Grossman for the seat. An octogenarian government watchdog unaffiliated with any political party, Grossman has gone so far as to file a successful lawsuit against the Ethics Commission for not following its own public-disclosure rules. As a potential appointee, he was widely viewed as reform-minded, following in the footsteps of others who have been purged from the body in recent years.

“Open government and good government work together, hand in hand,” Grossman told members of the board’s Rules Committee several weeks prior, interlacing his fingers for emphasis.

Grossman won the backing of Sups. John Avalos and Ross Mirkarimi. But Board President David Chiu spoke against the idea, throwing his support instead behind Dorothy Liu, an attorney and professional colleague of his through the Asian American Bar Association. The Rules Committee, chaired by Sup. Jane Kim and filled out by Sups. Sean Elsbernd and Mark Farrell, also turned down Grossman in favor of Liu.

“She’s extremely hard-working and does her homework,” Chiu later told the Guardian. He also saw it as a plus that Liu was not a political insider: “I think we need an individual on the Ethics Commission who will be impartial,” he said, adding that he’d prefer “someone who has not been involved in the rough-and-tumble of San Francisco politics.” Sup. Carmen Chu echoed Chiu’s comments during the meeting, saying she thought Liu would be an ideal candidate because she did not seem to have an agenda.

Mirkarimi and Avalos, on the other hand, said they were looking for a candidate who did possess a vision for strengthening the role of the agency as a watchdog. “I think our Ethics Commission and the department, as it stands, needs all the help it can get,” Mirkarimi said during the meeting. “I think having people who are well-seasoned with an understanding in the law of ethics and sunshine is something we should be looking for. Mr. Grossman has exhibited that well over the years in trying to do everything he possibly can to advance the cause in a nonpartisan way of making sure that we have a very strong Ethics Commission.”

Mar’s motion to consider Grossman was shot down on an 8-3 vote with Mirkarimi, Mar, and Avalos dissenting; Liu then won the commission appointment on a 10-1 vote, with Avalos dissenting.

Until recently, the Board of Supervisors seat on the Ethics Commission was held by Eileen Hansen, a progressive who had called for political reform under Mayor Willie Brown’s administration prior to being named to the post. When she was being considered for the commission, Hansen recalled, then-Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier raised an objection. “[She] thought the perfect person would be somebody who … would come essentially as a clean slate,” Hansen remembered. “Because I had been involved in organizing campaigns and had run for office, that was deemed too political.”

Yet Hansen viewed her familiarity with the system as an asset that helped her serve as an effective watchdog against corruption. During her six-year tenure, Hansen often cast lone dissenting votes against decisions she believed were weakening ethical standards. She told the Guardian she’d tried floating remedies for situations she viewed as inappropriate, only to have them summarily ignored, a role similar to that of former Ethics Commission member and staffer Joe Lynn.

In one case, Hansen recalled, she became concerned about a planning commissioner who also directed a nonprofit. To raise money, her organization held fundraisers that were ostensibly attended and funded by the very same developers and lobbyists who appeared before her at the Planning Commission. Yet Hansen said she was unable to persuade the other commissioners or staff to call for an investigation.

A more recent Ethics Commission vote underscores the same tension. On March 14, the commission voted unanimously to waive a pair of ethics regulations to allow a mayoral staff member to become executive director of the America’s Cup Organizing Committee (ACOC). Composed of highly influential business figures including at least two billionaire investors, ACOC is tasked with securing corporate donations for the America’s Cup to offset city costs of hosting the race.

Kyri McClellan, project manager with the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, helped craft a memorandum of understanding with ACOC regarding its fundraising obligations to the city. In her new job, without skipping a beat, she’ll interface with the city on behalf of ACOC. The rules that were waived for her benefit are meant to prevent city officials from holding undue influence over their former coworkers after leaving public service, and to prevent city staffers from accepting money from city contractors right after departing from city employment.

“If I had been there, there would have been at least one vote against that waiver,” said Hansen, whose term on the commission ended before this vote. “We have this law in place for a reason. By continuing to provide waivers … we create a situation where the public will not trust the Ethics Commission as a watchdog.”

Hansen said she was scouting for a new commissioner who would carry on with her work. “I was looking for and trying to recruit a visionary — someone who could really be a reformer,” she said. “We’re almost in a position now where we need a watchdog over the watchdog.” She said she saw Grossman as the right fit.

Other observers, such as CitiReport blogger Larry Bush — an investigative reporter who called for the creation of the Ethics Commission in San Francisco in the early 1990s — questioned whether Liu was the best choice after hearing her statements at the March 17 Rules Committee hearing. Liu did not come out strongly in favor of televising Ethics Commission meetings, which has long been a sticking point for open-government advocates.

“I absolutely support televising the Ethics Commission, I think it’s really important,” Kim noted when we asked her about this. She added that she would have supported Oliver Luby — a former Ethics Commission staff member and whistleblower who was ultimately ousted from the job — if he’d applied.

Kim noted that an initial concern she’d had in seeking an ethics commissioner was whether the person would vote to allow Mayor Lee to resume his job as city administrator after serving out his term as interim mayor, a key decision that the commission was scheduled to consider April 11.

Once she was advised that it would be inappropriate to ask which way they would vote when conducting candidate interviews, Kim said she withheld her question — and still didn’t know Liu’s or Grossman’s position at the time she spoke with the Guardian. “I think it’s very appropriate for him to get his job back,” Kim noted. “That vote is very important to me.”

That vote drew closer scrutiny, however, after Ethics Commission staff recommended that the exemption that would be built into the law for Lee’s benefit should be expanded to include appointed members of the Board of Supervisors. “This new proposal would convert a targeted, narrow exemption to deal with a special case into the ‘Politician Job Protection Act’ and could open the door to all kinds of unintended consequences,” charged Jon Golinger of San Franciscans for Clean Government.

Meanwhile, Luby seemed disheartened by the board’s selection of Liu for the Ethics Commission. He was looking to Grossman to fill Hansen’s shoes as the commission’s reformer — a role previously held by Lynn, Luby’s good friend and mentor who died last year.

He lamented, “This will mark the first time in over 10 years to have an Ethics Commission without someone who has past experience advocating for good government.”