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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Mayoral Candidates' and Ethics Commission's Complaints Are Self-Serving, Bogus

Posted By on Tue, Oct 18, 2011 at 2:30 PM

click to enlarge Seriously, dealing with these brick houses is "unworkable"
  • Seriously, dealing with these brick houses is "unworkable"

Given the chance to complain to whatever newspaper covered the land of fairy tales, the Big Bad Wolf would probably remonstrate that houses of bricks were too cumbersome to be blown down -- even with much huffing and puffing.

Given the chance to complain to the paper that covers our own fairy tale kingdom, a slew of mayoral candidates yesterday whined to the Chronicle that San Francisco's ban on political contributions from city contractors awarded lucrative deals by candidates for office to be "unworkable."

Is it surprising for politicians on the wrong side of the law to claim the fault lies with the law? Not by the hairs on your chinny-chin-chin.

More surprising, ostensibly, is the Ethics Commission siding with the politicians. On the other hand, SF Weekly revealed in 2009

that Ethics had unilaterally abandoned any attempt at enforcing this

law and not one of the elected officials who had signed it into

existence was bothering to follow it. 

To be fair, campaign finance laws do not read with the ease of Harry Potter novels. But the idea behind the contractor ban, devised by Ethics' staff and later ratified by the voters as Measure H in 2008, is understandable. Contractors awarded city contracts exceeding $50,000 are forbidden from contributing to the city officials who voted on those deals for six months to prevent pay-for-play politics.

In yesterday's Chronicle story, Ethics Commission Executive Director John St. Croix bemoans that the list of banned contractors has swollen to a pair of Yellow Pages-sized books. Well, that's a problem. What's also a problem is that this is being handled in much the same way it would have been in, say, 1902. We have computers now. Databases. Search functions. But we're not using them in this case, rendering a law that Ethics would rather not enforce conveniently unenforceable.

In fact, at every juncture, Ethics' permanent staff has attempted to weaken this law. Last year, it moved to up the contract level from $50,000 to $100,000 for the law to be enacted. It also attempted to lift the ban on donations to city officials when dealing with state boards whose members are appointed by those very San Francisco officials. The Ethics Commissioners voted down both of these suggestions. If they hadn't, however, the tremendous money involved with the Treasure Island Development Association or San Francisco Redevelopment Agency could have flowed to the mayor, supervisors, and, arguably, San Francisco officials running for state office.

After much consideration of what analogy we should use regarding Ethics' self-serving attempts to avoid dealing with this law, we've settled on the following: Ethics is shocked, shocked to find the law is unenforceable.

click to enlarge Ah, these laws are too complicated!
  • Ah, these laws are too complicated!
Finally, both Ethics officials and others complained that the law in question not only prevents city contractors from making donations to political candidates, but falls upon the volunteer boardmembers of nonprofits.

The terms "volunteer boardmember" and "nonprofit" likely test well among San Francisco voters. But in a city where more than half a billion dollars flows to nonprofits each year, this is big business. Anyone who thinks nonprofits don't play the political game is severely deluding themselves -- treating nonprofits the same as construction companies or other contractors is a necessity for the law to be effective.

Of course, it remains to be seen if anyone really wants this law to be effective. Currently, we're left with the same situation we had when SF Weekly broke this story more than two years ago: What do you have when elected officials who approved a law won't follow it and the entity charged with enforcing it refuses to do so?

The status quo. 

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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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