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Friday, November 16, 2007

Ethics Commission Rejects Increased Citizen Oversight, Because, Like, Computers Are Hard And Stuff

Posted By on Fri, Nov 16, 2007 at 8:46 AM


The San Francisco Ethics Committee is so off my Christmas card list.

Because I’m a reporter and my boss wants me to go through a bunch of records to find out whether public officials stand to gain from a development project they’re voting on. Because sometimes you have to prove what everybody already knows.

To track this potential corruption down, I’ve got to slog over to City Hall (it’s raining out) and go to the Ethics Commission and ask to see paper copies of the more than 800 “Statements of Economic Interest” on file -- the forms where city committee members and public officials list where their money comes from.

Ed Jew’s reads like a whodunit novel. Gavin Newsom’s like a commercial for hair gel. Most of them read like the instructions for assembling your futon.

If there’s a bunch of officials I want to investigate – and aren’t there always? – that means a whole lot of time on the paper trail.

And if you want to do it? As a citizen? Why then you’ve got to get your ass down there too, during business hours … which pretty much means that only homeless people will have the time to investigate city corruption. Which, come to think of it, might be why so many of them are muttering all the time.

But it didn’t have to be this way. Earlier this month the Ethics Commission

rejected a motion that would have required all SEI’s to be filed in a fully searchable electronic format – allowing the public complete access from home, and a better quality of access than is now available. Anybody could investigate city corruption.

“Electronic filing will provide more transparency to the public” said Commissioner Eileen Hansen, who proposed the measure and was the one commissioner to vote in favor of it. “Electronic filings will be easier to access than paper filings.”

So why wouldn’t the Ethics Commission require it? What could be so important that it trumps the public’s right to transparency in its public officials?

Well, you see … computers are hard! And filling out forms on a computer is confusing!

Or, as Ethics Commissioner Susan Harriman put it: ““I don’t like to do anything electronically that I can do by paper.”

Yeah … I’m … sure we all … feel that way.

Harriman thought a lot of other city appointees might agree with her that computers are just so doggone frustrating … you have to point and click and things! … and end up not filling the forms out at all. Although technically … if you want to get really technical and stuff … it’s a legal requirement.

But, then, maybe it’s too much to expect that city appointees would obey the law.

There was also some concern that requiring electronic filing would create an undue burden on city volunteers, because the state still requires a paper copy of the SEI. But Ethics Committee Executive Director John St. Croix pointed out later that the e-filings could be printed out in order to satisfy the state requirement.

So … to put this in simple terms for our public officials … you click “Print” and then “Okay.”

Still, every commissioner except Hansen thought that yes, obeying the law and basic computer literacy are too much to ask of our city officials, and so voted to make the electronic filings optional.

Although they are “encouraging” people to file them electronically anyway. I’m sure that’ll work great.

The issue will be revisited in another couple of years, according to statements St. Croix made at the hearing, although in a follow-up conversation he said it could be as early as next year.

In the meantime, maybe they’ll appoint that homeless guy to the Ethics Commission. I bet he uses computers.

By Benjamin Wachs | Photo courtesy of the Laughing Squid

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