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No Disclosures: New Ethics Committee Rules Gag Reporting of Election Funds 

Wednesday, Nov 16 2011

In the last weeks before an election, the money tells a different story than the sunny text on campaign flyers. Unfortunately, the S.F. Ethics Commission — whose purported duty is to keep government honest — passed new campaign finance reforms in late October that will silence that tale.

The old commission rules state that any time a candidate or third-party committee spends or receives funds past a threshold — in mayoral campaigns, first $50,000, then the next $1 million, and then every following $50,000 — they must file a declaration with the Ethics Commission within 24 hours.

But filing within 24 hours is a hassle, especially as contributions and spending spike at a campaign's end. So, the commission voted 4-1 last month to create new disclosure deadlines that occur much less frequently: every Wednesday up to 21 days before the election; every Monday and Wednesday between 21 and 7 days before an election; and the last Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Monday leading up to Election Day.

Weekly papers usually have print deadlines on Monday and publish on Wednesdays. SF Weekly's no exception, which means we wouldn't be able to print expenditures and contributions from the balls-to-the-wall last week of campaigning until after Election Day.

"They're giving you guys a finger on that one," said Oliver Luby, a former fines collection officer with the commission.

Luby sees it as a blow to the principle of public disclosure.

"What's more important — the trouble these people have to go through, or the public's right to know?" he said. "When you're a million-dollar campaign, you really can't afford to turn in your stuff every 24 hours? Is it really that hard?"

Former Ethics Commissioner Eileen Hansen said, "The change is complicated and allows for less-frequent reporting than we have currently. How does that further the purposes of the law?"

In some elections, the disclosures are required every time the voluntary expenditure ceiling is passed — which means a sheriff candidate can fundraise and spend wildly for a week before competitors and media get a whiff of what's happening.

"It's particularly outrageous in the case of the non-Board, non-mayoral races," said Luby. "If they take a week to fill that [disclosure] in, they'll be spending for a week."

In San Francisco, that week might include heaps of mailers, a rash of robo-calls, out-of-nowhere paperbacks, and other craziness — which voters might like to know about before marking their ballots.

About The Author

Ellen Huet


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