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Politics & Policy

Ethics Commission blames city department heads for derailing anti-corruption ballot measure

Mayor London Breed at a press conference within San Francisco’s City Hall on February 16, 2022 in San Francisco, Calif. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

A ballot initiative that would have tightened up rules around gifts to public officials failed to make the ballot, and San Francisco ethics watchdogs are blaming a union representing city department heads. 

The Ethics Commission pointed the finger at the Municipal Executives Association in an August 5 letter, writing that the union used the bargaining process to stall the proposed ballot measure past a key deadline. Chair Yvonne Lee, vice-chair Larry Bush and executive director LeeAnn Pelham jointly wrote that the union’s actions undermined efforts to weed out corruption. 

“Signaling quite a different tone, the actions of the bargaining unit for City departmental leaders has instead delayed needed ethics reforms,” said the August 5 memo. 

The measure sought to expand the definition of what would constitute a bribe, mandate disclosure of any relationships with city contractors, and add more comprehensive ethics training for city employees. And its repeated deferment underscores how efforts to draw a bright line between gifts and bribes collides with symbiotic relationships between city departments and  nonprofits.

Gifts or Bribes? 

The Ethics Commission drafted a ballot measure last year in response to the corruption scandals that erupted last year, toppling the former Department of Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru and other top officials. In a report, the commission identified continuing corruption risk in ill-defined rules around giving gifts to city departments and officials.  

Among other findings, the report found that Another Planet Entertainment, which organizes the annual Outside Lands festival, donated $430,950 in free tickets to the Recreation & Park Department as part of a contract stipulation. In another example, the Planning Department hosted a lavish staff party that was funded by real estate and other firms that had lobbied the city. 

“In other places, these are called bribes,” said Bush, who said he was speaking in his individual capacity. “It’s not clear to me why they wouldn’t want the money to go through a public process. Apparently that becomes onerous in the minds of some officials.”

In December 2021, the commission’s measure failed to meet the deadline for the June ballot after representatives of city museums and other entities asked for more time to assess the consequences of the changes. Asserting that it would change their working conditions, the MEA invoked a “meet and confer” process that pushed the commission past the ballot deadline. 

Labor negotiations are held in closed session, meaning they’re not open to the public. MEA representatives did not respond to requests for comment by press time. 

‘No nominal threshold’

Since the beginning of the year, the commission has continued to tinker with the ballot measure in response to concerns that it would trigger unintended consequences for city departments and nonprofits that often work closely in areas like parks, museums and the arts. But it still faces criticism for being overly broad. 

Debbie Lerman, director of the SF Human Services Network, an umbrella group for the city’s nonprofits, told The Standard that the proposed rules potentially conflate real corruption with legitimate fundraising and advocacy—or even mundane neighborly invitations.  

“Say you live next door to a supervisor, and you often talk about politics, and now you’re a ‘restricted source,’” Lerman said, referring to the commission’s term for entities that have contracted with the city or sought to influence its actions within the last 12 months.  “And the next time you have a backyard barbecue, you can’t invite them. You can’t even give them a cookie off a plate. There’s no nominal threshold.” 

Lerman described the commission’s piecemeal approach to amending the measure, by carving out certain exemptions in response to complaints, as frustrating. 

One result: Exemptions for fundraiser tickets are handled differently depending on the organization involved. Arts and culture groups are allowed to give invitations for a city official plus a guest, but service nonprofits can only invite the city official. 

“The distinction makes no sense,” says Lerman. “Is this what corruption is really about? Why are we going after all this little stuff?”

Behested Payments

Another dimension of gift-giving takes the form of behested payments, where an official solicits a donation for a nonprofit. Behested payments were addressed in both legislation and a ballot measure in the past year, but it was a bumpy road getting there. 

In December 2021, the Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance to bar officials from asking individuals who have business before them to make donations to their chosen nonprofits. Mayor Breed refused to sign the ordinance, reflecting concerns over how the rules could impede legitimate fundraising efforts. 

Breed and other elected officials have argued that the new rules are overly broad and confusing; she issued a memo last May ordering that fundraising requests be paused until they could confirm compliance with the new ordinance. 

She also readied a measure of her own for the November ballot to amend the ordinance, but withdrew it in favor of negotiating with District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin, sponsor of the original legislation, according to a report in the San Francisco Examiner. The resulting compromise amendments will be reviewed by the Ethics Commission this Friday. 

Bush argues that without adoption of more comprehensive rules pertaining to gifts to agencies and officials, San Francisco will retain a relatively unique status as a city where interested parties can “grease the wheels” or otherwise leverage goodwill by providing gifts to city officials, whether directly or through intermediaries. He said that the commission will continue to work on the measure. 

“We’ll try again but clearly there are other options,” he said, alluding to possible board legislation.