When it comes to obfuscation, some city lobbyists have apparently taken Bill Clinton's seminar regarding what the meaning of the word "is" is. San Francisco's 43 registered lobbyists are required to file quarterly summaries of their activities with the Ethics Commission, ostensibly so the commission — and the public — knows what they're up to.
And yet, after poring through dozens of the latest quarterly filings — covering April 1 to June 30 of this year — you often feel as if you know less coming out than going in. Take, for example, the Committee on Jobs. In the section where a lobbying group is required to "describe in detail each local legislative or administrative action [it] sought to influence," the downtown pro-business group went off on an 88-word tangent noting it "worked to promote a public policy agenda to foster economic development and job creation" and "advocated for a fiscally responsible city budget." A simple statement of meeting with Supervisor X over Ordinance Y or Contract Z and some dollar figures was apparently too much to ask.
Or take Platinum Advisers, one of the city's heavy-hitting lobbying firms. Seventeen companies paid it $270,783 this quarter to "work with city officials and departments" — and yet none are listed as being contacted.
Simply put, no one could read these disclosures and have any idea what the Committee on Jobs or Platinum Advisers are doing. And yet John St. Croix, the Ethics Commission's executive director, says his hands are tied. Under the city's Lobbyist Ordinance, these kinds of uninformative answers are specific enough. St. Croix said the commission has never sent back a lobbyist's quarterly filing for being too vague in the commission's dozen-year history.
The lobbyists "could be doing straight-up policy analysis, but you just don't know," said Charles Marsteller, the former San Francisco director of Common Cause. "The truth is, you can't tell if they're doing something nefarious or not."
St. Croix said his commission is considering tightening up the ordinance, and he hopes to propose stronger rules to the Board of Supervisors for a vote within a few months. One thing he could start with: dates. Even when San Francisco lobbyists deign to mention whom they've met with, they're not required to say when.
That's not the case in other cities, which seem to insist on stricter disclosure. While AT&T was free to reprint the Committee on Jobs' 88-word piffle to explain its contribution to the group in San Francisco, in Los Angeles it was required to list the venue and price of a June 4 lunch for the L.A. police commissioner (Liberty Grill, $20.69). Left unsaid was whether the lunch helped to "foster economic development and job creation."