Saturday, March 17, 2007

Incompatible Activities

A Rules Committee meeting at San Francisco's City Hall on Thursday morning dealt, among other topics, with the woeful condition of the city's Ethics Commission which is kept deliberately underfunded and ineffective for whatever reasons by the powers-that-be in city government.

h. Brown has a funny and astute wrap-up at the "Fog City Journal" site (click here to get there for the full article) which explains much of the problem:
"Ethics' Executive Director John St. Croix was a man tip-toeing over a razor sharp picket fence. His department is sorely understaffed. However, it is intentionally understaffed so's it can't do what the voters wanted it to do when they passed Prop K that created it. You'd think St. Croix would want a full staff.

On the other hand, the man is an 'at will' employee and that means the commission can fire him at anytime. And the commission (appointees of Mayor, Board, Public Defender, D.A. and Assessor) is dominated by a Downtown thinking majority that doesn't want a stronger commission. Oddly, the Mayor, as a supervisor, supported making the Ethics boss independent and free of influence from Room 200. Now, as Mayor, Gavin's changed his mind."

h. Brown continues:
"So, you get the 2004-2005 Civil Grand Jury Foreperson (Mary McCallister) that studied Ethics and suggested full staffing and other changes to properly implement Prop K. And, Joe Lynn, Ethics guru (spent most of the last decade working at Ethics, first as staff, then as a commissioner), describing best practices at similar agencies around the state."

"And, Bob Planthold from the Sunshine Task Force (formerly, Chair of the Ethics Commission). And, Rick Knee who is also with the Sunshine Task Force. And, a number of City employees with anecdotal evidence of the inadequacy of Ethics.

You get all of these people calling for full staffing (they've been at 50% for 4 years because first, Willie Brown, then Newsom, refused to budget staff for them). And, you get St. Croix saying that he simply "wouldn't know what to do with them" if the Board voted full staffing.

It was sad."

The aforementioned Mary McAllister was the foreperson of the Civil Grand Jury in 2004-2005, and according to all accounts, she was a great one. One of her crusades was cleaning up the deeply dysfunctional Rec & Park Department and somebody had sent her a link to this blog's accounting of the PROSAC meeting the other day, "He Mowed My Ball!" (click here). According to Joe Lynn, her reaction was "SFMike really gets it!"

The agenda item had been called by Supervisor Daly and most of the discussion was about the Ethics Commission and its inability to police illegal campaign financing, which is a subject close to his heart since he was outrageously smeared by shadow groups during the last election. The commission tends to go after the most piddling of rules infractions committed by small, underfunded campaigns for not dotting their i's and crossing their t's, while not bothering to go after the more egregious abusers like PG&E and lobbyist Jim Sutton who have deep pockets and can hide behind a series of shells.

Though Mary McAllister spoke to the campaign finance issue, her real interest is in changing the structure of ALL city departments with a simple formulation of "Incompatible Activities" for each group, which at present doesn't even exist. Here's the issue in her own words:
"There continues to be evidence that the Commission is inadequately staffed. The voters mandated that the City develop Statements of Incompatible Activities for its city employees and public officials nearly 4 years ago. These statements have the potential to prohibit employees and officials from self-serving activities that are not in the interests of the public."

She continues:
"An example of such activities is that Building Inspectors in San Francisco have a lengthy history of using their authority to obtain building permits for their own personal properties. Common sense might suggest that such blatant demonstrations of self-interest would be illegal. Unfortunately the City Attorney has advised the city that unless employees and officials are explicitly informed in advance that such acts are inappropriate, the city is unable to sanction these actions.

Nearly four years after the voters of San Francisco did what they could to mandate a remedy, these Statements of Incompatibility still do not exist. This is just one of many functions of the Ethics Commission that is not being performed because it does not have adequate staff to do so.

In general, the Ethics Commission staff is unable to perform random audits of many of the laws that it administers. Statements of Economic Interests are not reviewed, nor is any attempt to made to determine that they are on file in city departments, as required. Citizens who request such statements, as permitted by law, are often turned away empty handed. Investigations are initiated primarily in response to complaints. This puts the Commission in jeopardy of being a tool for political vendettas rather than a means of preventing conflicts of interest and campaign finance violations."

I missed meeting Mary McAllister at the Rules Committee, but an odd coincidence occurred an hour later at the Quaker Peace Vigil in front of the Federal Building a couple of blocks away. A woman approached the group and asked if she could join us, I enthusiastically welcomed her, and after chatting each other up for ten minutes, we had a blinding realization. "Are you Mike?" she asked. "Are you Mary?" I responded. Our subsequent embrace was spontaneous and heartfelt.


Kit Stolz said...

Funny! Is that a pic of you and Mary?

sfmike said...

Dear Kit: Yep.

cookiecrumb said...

I love your Mike and Mary moment.
Honey, you can mow my ball any time.