A recent city ruling poses the question: Is complete transparency in government always a good thing?
By Joe Eskenazi
What do you do when the Ethics Commission is deemed to have acted unethically?
This koan-like scenario recently became a reality for San Francisco. Myrna Lim, a former supervisorial candidate, was shocked to recently discover that the Ethics Commission had declined to file conflict of interest charges against her following a lengthy investigation — an investigation of which she was never informed.
When she attempted to obtain the documentation behind the investigation, she was told it was off limits (and would remain so until the end of time). Yet a ruling last week by the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force stated that Ethics was out of line in spurning Lim’s request.
For the city, this is a potential bombshell...
Ethics Commission Executive Director John St. Croix warns that without the shield of confidentiality, willing witnesses for department investigations will disappear (perhaps in more ways than one).
“Witnesses may need protection. A lot of people act in confidence in a way they just won’t do in public,” he said. “If people knew these files would be made public, the level of cooperation would evaporate.”
In fact, this ruling may very well change everything for the department, and could hamper its ability to aggressively pursue those who would bilk or deceive the city (and, by connection, you the tax-paying reader).
“It’s huge. For years, the City Attorney and Ethics Enforcement Attorneys have been telling us: 1. Ethics is a law-enforcement agency, and; 2. Law enforcement agencies can keep all their files secret,” said Joe Lynn, an Ethics Commissioner from 2003 to 2006.
“Now we learn that, to be a law-enforcement agency, you must be enforcing the penal code — something Ethics does not do. We also learn that even law enforcement agencies have an affirmative obligation to disclose some things.”
St. Croix disagrees. He feels that secrecy is not only allowed by the city charter, it’s mandated. Revealing the names of complainants and whistle-blowers could result in retribution, both legal and otherwise. He said he will consult with the Ethics Commission and City Attorney before handing over the files.
Lim sees his point, but is none too sympathetic. She feels the investigation — which concerned a possible conflict of interest during her days on the Planning Commission when she also managed City College properties — has damaged her reputation around the community.
“I found out there was even a hearing I was not told about and they had contacted people and obtained my contract. They obtained all the information about me. Who else did they call?” she asked.
All in all, it’s a perfect “Tevye” situation — named in honor of the dithering protagonist of “Fiddler on the Roof” who tended to parse every decision with exclamations of “On the one hand….but on the other hand…”
Well, on the one hand it makes perfect sense that whistle-blowers and witnesses for Ethics investigations deserve confidentiality so they aren’t sued — or worse — a little down the road.
But, on the other hand, you can’t dismiss the notion that secret investigations and perennially sealed documents are just plain creepy.
After receiving her letter, Lim noticed a hearing on Ethics’ calendar regarding someone accused of conflict of interest charges.
“I put two and two together and I figured that was probably a hearing about me,” she said. “But it kind of sucks that I have to speculate.”
Cartoon | Clay Bennett, Christian Science Monitor