You can’t trust Ethics

Pub date August 16, 2011

By Larry Bush

OPINION Proposition F, a measure on the November ballot, is supposed to clean up some provisions of the law that requires political consultants to register and make disclosures about their clients and their work. It was approved by all 11 supervisors.

But Prop. F has some serious problems. For starters, it grants authority to the Ethics Commission to make any other changes it wants in the law.

As the Voter Handbook says:

“A yes vote means: You also want to allow the City to change any of the campaign consultant ordinance’s requirements without further voter approval.”

Why should you oppose that? Because the Ethics Commission can’t be trusted.

The reason San Francisco has a law forcing political consultants to register and make disclosures is because the voters demanded one. City Hall fought against it every step of the way.

Former Supervisor Tom Ammiano introduced the measure in 1996, and it won board approval. Then-Mayor Willie Brown vetoed it. Ammiano rewrote the measure 1997 to meet Mayor Brown’s objections. Brown vetoed it again. And the supervisors who had voted for the law refused to vote for it again and overturn the veto.

So Ammiano and several other supervisors put the measure on the ballot. The political consultants raised a war chest to defeat it and spent more than $100,000 in direct mail, billboards and other voter contacts.

It passed with 61 percent of the vote.

What kind of clean up does Ethics plan now on the political consultant law? You can bet it won’t come down on the side of greater disclosure.

In 2009, two years ago, the Ethics Commission decided to write a clean up of the city lobbyist law. Just like they want to do with the political consultant law now.

And what happened with that law?

It changed one little aspect that didn’t get any real attention. It changed what is defined as a lobbyist — a person or entity who seeks to influence administrative or legislative decisions.

And what is the result?

Now the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce no longer has to file and disclose its lobbying. Neither does Lennar. Neither does the America’s Cup or Larry Ellison.

All those groups had to file under the old rules.

The bottom line is that a sleeping watchdog that can’t be trusted wants the right to change the laws governing political consultants — without any further oversight or public vote.

The former Ethics Commissioners who also are opposing this measure are Paul Melbostad, who served on the commission when the political consultants act was passed; Bob Dockendorff; Joe Julian; Bob Planthold; and Eileen Hansen, who just completed her term and was the only commissioner who voted against the pay-to-play rewrite.

I urge you to join them in opposing this measure.

Larry Bush is the publisher of, a City Hall watchdog.