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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Ethics Commission Beefs Up Lobbyist Reporting Requirements -- But Without Tech Boost, Data Will Remain Hidden

Posted By on Thu, Apr 23, 2009 at 7:30 AM

click to enlarge When it comes to mandated filings, more is not necessarily better
  • When it comes to mandated filings, more is not necessarily better
You could read it as "progress" that at this month's Ethics Commission meeting, it was agreed lobbyists will have to start making monthly filings reporting their meetings with city employees instead of filing quarterly.

Twelve filings a year is more than four. If something fishy is going on, now it could be discovered three months sooner -- in theory.

In practice, however, you could ask the lobbyists to file every week or even every day and it would still be onerous to impossible for Ethics' staff or journalists or gadflies to ferret out fishiness or wrongdoing if the data isn't searchable on a computer -- and it isn't.

Let's say you're hoping to see which lobbyists met with which public officials over the past several years. Thanks to the new, more timely requirements recently approved by Ethics, you'll now be sifting through a dozen filings a year instead of four. And the key word here is "sifting." You can either get the hard copies from Ethics or print up scanned .PDF copies from the Commission's Web site. But, again, there is no database where you can enter in names, dates, and figures and search through the haystacks of data to find a few of those damn needles. Creation of such a service has been a longtime goal for Ethics -- and Executive Director John St. Croix said he is optimistic one could be in place by Jan. 1, 2010; "It's going to happen. It's just a question of when."  

And that's a good thing. Without it, good intentions notwithstanding, the Ethics Commission has, in essence, upgraded from an oxcart to a tractor -- but hitched an ox to the tractor.

The fact that lobbyist data is still not searchable in 2009 is even more mystifying when one considers that the exact opposite is the case when it comes to campaign finance reporting. Anyone who's ever visited Ethics' Web site or the Secretary of State or Fair Political Practices Commission -- a few of you are nodding, no doubt -- knows it's possible to put together any number of searchable spreadsheets grouped by name, dollar amount, etc.

What's more, the monthly lobbyists' reporting requirement still wouldn't prevent the public from finding out about, say, Lobbyist A having a big meeting with Politician B a week before an election and the politician changing his or her tune. With campaign finance, once again, expenditures leading up to an election must be filed daily, just so this kind of thing can be discovered. Not so with lobbying.

Commissioner Eileen Hansen has pushed for revisiting, in six months' time, the possibility of mandating lobbyists to make reports every 72 hours. She and others eventually hope to require a 24-hour turnaround for reports. This would be a good thing -- but not nearly so good if the data was walled off and unsearchable.

You can't have a truly transparent system when your vision is blocked off by mounds and mounds of paperwork. 

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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