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Seeking a Permit: Ethical Guidelines


From families looking to remodel their home to a business seeking a permit, there are lots of reasons someone might need a permit from the City & County of San Francisco.

Navigating these processes can be frustrating, and you may seek aid. Or, you might be grateful for a worker’s assistance and wish to thank them. But to protect the integrity of the public process, there are restrictions on how we can interact with those reviewing or approving permits.

It is important to remember that, in general, we can’t offer gifts or other tokens of gratitude to city workers for doing their job. Even with the purest of intentions, such gifts can provide the appearance of favoritism. 

What’s a Permit Consultant?

Working through the City’s systems can be tough. Whether you are just trying to get a permit for a home repair or for a major construction project, extra help could be useful.

A Permit Consultant can be hired to help navigate the City’s systems. Specifically, it includes contacting the Department of Building Inspection, the Entertainment Commission, the Planning Department, or the Department of Public Works to help a permit applicant obtain a permit. A Permit Consultant is not necessarily a Lobbyist, though an individual can be both.

Permit Consultants must file with the Ethics Commission. 

City Gifts Rules

City officials can’t accept gifts for doing their jobs. Accepting or asking for gifts for providing City services, assistance, advice, or anything related to our City jobs is prohibited.

Learn more about gift rules:

Political Donations

Local political donations are a more complicated if you work in or with the city. This is to reduce the chance that gifts don’t influence decision-making. It also helps prevent inappropriate pressure in the workplace.
If you fall into one of these groups, then additional rules apply to you:
• If you are seeking a permit
• If you’re a City officer or employee seeking donations
• If you have or are seeking a contract
• If you are seeking a Large Project Authorization
If you fall into these groups, you must generally be very careful about when (or even if!) donations can be made or even requested. If you think these rules might apply to you, read more in detail here! 

Behested Payments

What are “Behested Payments?”
A behested payment is one made (for example, to a non-profit) because of a request by a public official or employee to someone to make that payment. A “payment” can be cash, goods, or services.

Because these requests can raise ethical flags about fairness in governmental decision-making, the practice is regulated by both state and San Francisco laws.

If you are seeking a permit, or any other city service, the responsibility to not make illegal solicitations lies with City officials. But it is good for everyone to be aware of.

Learn more about the limits on requesting Behested Payments on our website. (

Reporting Violations

Waste, fraud, or abuse in City government? Report it!
You can file a confidential report through the Whistleblower Program. We can all do our part to make sure our government is fair and accountable.
You can report:
• City funds used in the wrong way or for the wrong purpose
• Any dishonest activity by a City officer or employee
• Wasting money or inefficient government practices
• Bad quality or poor delivery of City services
Learn more on the SF Controller’s Office website.
Retaliation against someone who filed a Whistleblower complaint is prohibited. Retaliation could mean firing someone or suspending them because they filed a complaint. I could also mean moving someone to a lower position or taking any action that affects their jobs in a negative way because they filed a complaint or because they cooperated in an investigation.
If you believe you are a victim of whistleblower retaliation, file a complaint with the Ethics Commission.
To contact an investigator, call the Ethics Commission at 415-252-3100 or visit the Ethics Commission’s complaint website

What can I do if I suspect fraud, waste, or abuse in City government?

What can I do if I suspect fraud, waste, or abuse in City government?
As public servants, it is important that we follow the rules for good governance and hold each other accountable. We all have a responsibility to not only follow ethics guidelines but also to report bad behavior.
This is why there is a process for city employees and contractors to report issues they know about – sometimes, this is referred to as “whistleblowing.” You can file a whistleblower complaint online on the Controller’s Office webpage.
Also, those who report suspected misbehavior are protected from retaliation.
Whistleblowing, in this context, is usually about unethical behavior. Issues include:
• Misuse of public funds
• Improper gift giving & receiving
• Violating local, state, or federal laws
• Wasteful and/or inefficient government practices

How are whistleblowers protected?

How are whistleblowers protected?
People need to trust that if they report improper government activity, they won’t be a target for retaliation. “Retaliation” could include being fired, demoted, suspended, or other similar actions against an employee.

If retaliation has occurred, the offender can face fines of $5,000-$10,000 as well as disciplinary actions. In addition, the retaliatory action could be reversed.
Learn more about retaliations and their penalties here.

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