July 23, 2001
H. William Brown
350 Bay Street, Suite 100-111
San Francisco, CA 94133
Re: Request for Opinion Concerning San Francisco Charter Section C8.105(e)
Dear Mr. Brown:
You requested the Ethics Commission's advice regarding whether there are post-employment restrictions on officers and employees of the City and County of San Francisco that might prevent you from representing clients before the Assessment Appeals Board.
The Ethics Commission provides two kinds of advice: written formal opinions and informal advice. S.F. Charter Section C3.699-12. Written formal opinions are available to individuals who request advice about their responsibilities under local laws. Formal opinions provide the requester immunity from subsequent enforcement action if the material facts are as stated in the request for advice, and if the District Attorney and City Attorney concur in the advice. See id. Informal advice does not provide similar protection. See id.
Because you seek advice regarding specific actions that you may take in the future, the Commission is treating your questions as a request for a formal opinion.1
You asked the Ethics Commission to consider the following question:
As a former employee of the Assessor's Office of the City and County of San Francisco, may you represent a client before the Assessment Appeals Board?
Summary of Advice
Because the Assessment Appeals Board is an agency independent of and separate from the Assessor's Office, you are not barred from representing private clients before the Board. However, you are cautioned that representation of clients before the Board often entails contact with the Assessor's Office; with respect to contact with the Assessor's office, you are barred from representing private clients before that office for a period of two years after your retirement.
You provided the Ethics Commission with the following information.
Until May 12, 2001, you worked as a full time employee of the Assessor's Office for the City and County of San Francisco. During your tenure with the Assessor's Office, you appeared before the Assessment Appeals Board ("Board") to represent the Assessor. You were never an employee of the Assessment Appeals Board. You asked if you may now represent a private client before the Board.
Section C8.105(e) of the San Francisco Charter provides:
No person who has served as an officer or employee of the city and county shall within a period of two years after termination of such service or employment appear before the board or agency of the city and county of which he or she was a member in order to represent any private interest, provided, however, that said officer or employee may appear before said board for the purpose of representing himself or herself.
The voters of the City and County of San Francisco originally enacted this restriction at the June 4, 1974 election.2
The plain language of Section C8.105(e) prohibits you from appearing before the Assessor's Office to represent a private interest.3 Accordingly, the question presented by your letter is whether the Assessment Appeals Board is a board or agency of which you would be considered a former member.4
B. Relationship between Assessment Appeals Board and the Assessor's Office
The Assessor's Office, among other things, locates and identifies the ownership of all taxable property in the City and County of San Francisco. It also establishes a taxable value for all property subject to property taxation. Property owners who do not agree on an assessment may either seek an adjustment with the Assessor's Office or file an appeal for relief with the Assessment Appeals Board. If the property owner and the Assessor's Office reach agreement as to the proper assessment value and file a signed stipulation to this effect with the Board, the property owner need not appear at a Board hearing unless the Board rejects the stipulation and sets a time for hearing the appeal.
The Board itself is an independent agency, separate from the Assessor's Office. Consisting of members appointed by the Board of Supervisors, it was established to decide disputes between the Assessor's Office and property owners. It acts in a judicial capacity to adjust individual assessments in the City based on evidence submitted to it.
C. Application of the Law
Because the Assessment Appeals Board is an agency separate from and not under the control of the Assessor's Office, Section C8.105(e) does not operate to bar your representation of private interests before the Board. Section C8.105(e) was designed to preclude undue influence by a former employee representing a private interest because of the former employee's close working relationship with former associates. Because of the relationship between the Assessor's Office and the Assessment Appeals Board discussed above, you would have no greater influence than a member of the public when you appear before the Board.
However, the purpose of a hearing before the Board is to resolve a dispute between a property owner and the Assessor's Office. Thus, when you represent an interest before the Board, you may come into contact with the Assessor's Office in order to resolve a dispute. This would constitute representation of a private interest before your former agency, which is barred by Section C8.105(e). Under Section C8.105(e), you may not make any appearance before or communicate with anyone in the Assessor's Office on behalf of a private interest for a period of two years from May 12, 2001.
I hope you find this letter responsive to your inquiry. Please contact me at (415) 581-2300 if you have any additional questions.
S:\ADVICE\conflicts of interest\conflicts C8.105e Brown.doc
1 State law contains a number of prohibitions affecting employees and former employees of an assessor's office, such as Revenue and Taxation Code §§ 1365 and 1624.1. Because the Ethics Commission is unable to provide advice regarding state law, we recommend that you seek guidance from private counsel regarding other possible prohibitions found in state law that are not addressed in this letter.
2 Subsequent initiatives have changed the section number of this prohibition within the Charter, but have not changed its actual language.
3 In a previous opinion, the Ethics Commission has stated that the prohibition was intended to apply to any communication by an individual before his or her former board or agency, including staff, made on behalf of a private interest subject to the board or agency's regulation. See February 21, 2001 Ethics Commission advice letter to Merrill J. Schwartz, Esq.
4 The Ethics Commission has opined that the term "member" includes employees. Id.