Thursday, August 11, 2016
[San Francisco County] Bringing back ethics to the Ethics Commission
Blog note: this article references recommendations in grand jury reports. In addition, Quentin L. Kopp, when a state senator, was responsible for legislation in the 1990s that resulted in required, defined responses to grand jury reports. Quentin L. Kopp is a grand jury champion—statewide.
For more than a decade, the Ethics Commission was little more than a filing cabinet on campaign spending and some lobbyist reports, and it didn’t even do that well.
When Quentin L. Kopp, former San Francisco supervisor, former state senator and retired judge, applied for a seat on the San Francisco Ethics Commission, more than a few jaws dropped.
For those who remember the political battles of 30 years ago, Kopp was known as a man unafraid of a quarrel. He now seeks appointment to the city body charged with resolving quarrels. In fact, Kopp once quarreled with the proposal to create the commission where he now has applied to serve.
His application couldn’t come at a better time.
For more than a decade, the Ethics Commission was little more than a filing cabinet on campaign spending and some lobbyist reports, and it didn’t even do that well. In the past 10 years, as voters demanded greater transparency and the addition of provisions dealing with campaign consultants, expenditure lobbyists, major developers, permit expeditors and more, the commission never sought the staff necessary to perform its job.
The then-executive director suspended all reports from the city’s leaders on contracts they signed, made audits of major donors ($10,000 or more in a year) the lowest of low priorities, never acted on officials who failed to accurately disclose their economic interest, and waived everything from money laundering to outright bribes. The commission “won” removal of notification in the Voter Handbook of candidates who accepted spending limits, stopped issuing a required annual report and failed to act on any whistle-blower retaliation cases.
Ethics Commission in the news
Even worse, hiding inside rewrites of city ethics rules, the commission slipped in a repeal of the voter-approved ban on slush funds called “friends” committees and repealed the ban on contributions and gifts from those who benefit from city decisions such as development agreements, variances, tax policy, franchises and more. The commission even voted down a civil grand jury recommendation that its meetings be broadcast on the city channel.
Small wonder that one civil grand jury called the Ethics Commission “a sleeping watchdog.”
Kopp’s unique asset as a potential commissioner is that he is the first commissioner who has run and won elective office. He knows how politicians bury evidence, widen loopholes, cut deals and then delete the email trail. And he is mad as hell about a lot of it.
If Kopp were just a new addition to a dysfunctional Ethics Commission, then his appointment would not necessarily be a game changer. Since January, however, the commission has hired a new executive director who has the vision to get the resources needed to do the job. The commission itself is ably led and includes commissioners who bring perspectives from the private sector on matching policy with results.
Last year, the commission put a measure on the ballot closing a loophole used to influence City Hall. It won over 75 percent voter approval. Last month, the commission put a measure on the November ballot that bans lobbyists from contributing or bundling contributions to those they lobby.
What goes on behind closed doors at City Hall is starting to emerge, with new transparency and new disclosure and, where appropriate, new restrictions and enhanced penalties. Kopp, if his application is approved, will improve the prospects that the commission will no longer be a backwater for back-channel deals.
The Board of Supervisors should confirm him. It’s time to bring back ethics to the Ethics Commission.
August 7, 2016
San Francisco Chronicle
By Larry Bush