Ethics Commission Policy Update

August 5, 2022

From Chair Yvonne Lee, Vice-Chair Larry Bush, and Executive Director LeeAnn Pelham

 

When San Francisco voters go to the polls this November, they will not have a chance to enact new laws to strengthen City ethics and gift laws in the wake of the recent corruption scandals. As officials charged with a direct duty to promote transparency and accountability in City government, we believe it is important for voters to know why.

The Ethics Commission developed a set of much needed reforms to address corruption concerns and engaged the public in its deliberations over the past year. At the same time, a “meet and confer” process has been required with city executives on changes that impact their working conditions. The Commission is bound by confidentiality requirements of the law to not disclose the substance of those labor negotiations. Only after City labor negotiators and City attorneys determine that meet and confer has been concluded can the Ethics Commission take action to place a reform Ordinance directly before the voters. Because that process has not yet concluded, the Commission could not act by the August 5 deadline to submit a measure to the Elections Department. As a result, the ability of local voters to weigh in this November on important ethics reforms was delayed, leaving unchanged the following key ethics concerns:

  • Demonstrated gaps in City gift laws will continue to undermine the purpose and impact of local restricted source gift rules.
  • Training to support basic ethics awareness among all departmental employees who make or participate in making governmental decisions will not be required.
  • Outdated practices that allow inconsistent application of ethics standards will continue.
  • Current loopholes that hinder the full ability of the Ethics Commission to enforce administrative penalties against violators will remain on the books.
  • Other existing loopholes that blunt the full engagement of the Ethics Commission in the legislative process to amend ethics-related ordinances will remain unchanged.

San Francisco voters have repeatedly expressed their support for strong and effective ethics reforms. Their voices can be heard by gathering signatures, by weighing in on measures placed on the ballot by the Board of Supervisors or Mayor, and by voting on proposals that were placed directly on the ballot by the Ethics Commission.

The Ethics Commission began crafting the proposed ballot measure in late 2021 to strengthen City ethics and gift laws with the goal of enabling San Francisco voters to act on the proposals on the June 2022 ballot. Because those proposals were seen by municipal executives in the City to risk an “adverse impact” on their working conditions, the law required a meet and confer process with the Municipal Executives Association (MEA), the bargaining unit representing those officials. Throughout that process the Commission was told that the law did not require ultimate agreement between the parties to be successfully concluded, but rather a good faith discussion of issues raised.

Because the City’s labor negotiators and City Attorney’s Office concluded that process had not yet concluded by the deadline to place an ordinance on the June 2022 ballot, the Commission was prevented from voting to place a measure on the June ballot. The Commission was also bound by legal requirements that prevented it from speaking publicly on the nature of those discussions to report back to the public as meet and confer continued.

On July 29, after eight months of meetings and detailed responses and counter proposals by the Commission in a good faith effort to advance meet and confer to a successful conclusion, MEA responded to the Commission’s latest overture, stating that more discussion was needed and effectively blocking any possible action by the Commission by the August 5 deadline to place a measure on the November 2022 ballot. Again, with meet and confer not yet concluded, legal requirements continue to prohibit the commission from reporting back to the public with meaningful updates on progress.

In the wake of recent corruption scandals that have shaken public confidence in city government, public integrity assessments, including those issued by the City Controller, have repeatedly called out the need for a more ethical “tone at the top” in City departments. Signaling quite a different tone, the actions of the bargaining unit for City departmental leaders has instead delayed needed ethics reforms.

While the City’s executive leadership could together be championing the strengthening of ethics and accountability in City government through critical and common-sense reforms, the actions of City executives have instead denied San Francisco voters a fresh opportunity to enact important ethics reforms this year. Regrettably, City executives have sidestepped a critical opportunity to improve the City’s ethical climate and practices.

San Francisco voters vested the Ethics Commission with the power to place an ordinance directly on the ballot by 4/5 vote of its members. San Franciscans established this authority so the Commission could promote needed ethics reforms without being blocked or blunted by special politicized interests during the legislative process.

The Ethics Commission remains committed to ensuring all San Franciscans can have confidence in the integrity and fairness of their local government. While voters will have to wait until a future election to make their voices heard, the Commission and its staff will continue to do everything we can within our legal mandate to press for enactment of essential ethics laws that:

  1. Close gaps in City gift laws that continue to undermine the purpose and impact of the City’s restricted source gift rules. Comprehensive policy reviews have demonstrated the limitations of current law, and those laws need expansion and clarification to strengthen the effectiveness of restricted source rules.
  2. Establish an annual training requirement to support awareness of basic ethics laws among key departmental staff. Sustaining an effective ‘tone at the top’ requires the engagement and support of knowledgeable leadership teams at all departmental levels. To ensure awareness of essential ethics laws, the 4,700+ designated City officials and employees who make or participate in governmental decisions should have an annual training requirement under the law.
  3. End outdated structures and practices that continue to allow inconsistent citywide application of ethics standards. Consistent citywide standards to guard against incompatible activities for all departments should be codified in City law to prevent inconsistent interpretation and enforcement with individualized departmental statements of incompatible activities (SIAs).
  4. Close current loopholes that hinder the full ability of the Ethics Commission to enforce administrative penalties against violators. San Francisco’s bribery law should be strengthened to address the types of corrupt activities that the federal corruption investigations have unearthed. In addition, strict liability standards should clearly apply to all provisions of local law to ensure the Ethics Commission can take administrative enforcement action to remedy those violations. Where those standards do not clearly apply and instead require a particular mental state of the violator, these loopholes should be removed so that they do not continue to hamper the Commission’s full ability to robustly enforce local laws regulating lobbyists, permit consultants, and major developers.
  5. Close other existing loopholes that blunt the full engagement of the Ethics Commission in the legislative process to amend ethics-related ordinances. Unlike Proposition E protections, which San Francisco voters enacted in June to ensure behested payments laws are not legislatively amended without the concurrence of the Ethics Commission, certain other areas of the law that the Ethics Commission is charged with administering and enforcing lack similar safeguards against legislative changes that occur without the Commission’s approval. These other areas of the law should be amended to ensure legislative changes can only be made by the Board of Supervisors with the agreement of the Ethics Commission.

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The San Francisco Ethics Commission was created directly by the City’s voters with the passage of Proposition K in November 1993 and is responsible for the independent and impartial administration and enforcement of laws related to campaign finance, public financing of candidates, governmental ethics, conflicts of interests, and registration and reporting by lobbyists, campaign consultants, permit consultants, and major developers. 

Our mission is to practice and promote the highest standards of integrity in government.We achieve that by delivering impactful programs that promote fair, transparent, and accountable governmental decision making for the benefit of all San Franciscans. Public service is a public trust, and our aim is to ensure that San Franciscans can have confidence that the operations of the City and County andthedecisions made by its officials and employees are fair, just, and made without any regard to private or personal gain.

 

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