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Politics & Policy

San Francisco election watchdog boss set to resign

A screengrab from SFGovTV from a San Francisco Ethics Commission hearing where LeeAnn Pelham was introduced as new Executive Director on November 23, 2015.

The commission that oversees the city’s big-money ballot fights, campaigns and lobbyists will soon have to find a new leader.

LeeAnn Pelham, the executive director of the San Francisco Ethics Commission since January 2016, will resign on Jan. 23, 2023.

When she was hired in late 2015, Pelham was the director of the ethics and corporate governance office at the Santa Clara Valley Water District after spending nearly 20 years at the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, with 10 years as its head.

Her tenure coincided with the acceleration of money in politics across the country. More recently, it’s been marked by FBI indictments to root out pay-to-play politics that have led to the resignation or prosecution of half a dozen San Francisco department heads.

Established by voters in 1993, the five-member commission enforces laws relating to conflicts of interest, governmental ethics, campaign finance and lobbying. It maintains campaign finance and lobbyist disclosures and handles ethics violations.

Last year, the commission forced Mayor London Breed to pay $23,000 to settle multiple allegations, ranging from allowing a subordinate to give her thousands of dollars in gifts to using her office letterhead for personal matters.

Over the years, the commission has been slow to handle complaints—creating a backlog—and been criticized for using the Office of the City Attorney as counsel rather than having its own independent attorneys. Yet, Pelham was able to hire more staff and modernize many of the commission’s systems.

“I would say that LeeAnn Pelham substantially increased the reach of the commission in terms of accomplishing its mission,” Commissioner Larry Bush said.

Bush, who helped create the commission nearly 20 years ago, said Pelham’s experience running the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission was invaluable.

Pelham and Commission Chair Yvonne Lee were contacted for comment.

Robert Stern, who co-authored ethics laws for Los Angeles and the state, said Pelham was a personal friend and praised her work.

“It’s gonna be very difficult to match her qualifications because she just had so much experience in this area,” Stern said. 

The commission has not been without its struggles under Pelham’s watch.

“The problem that she has is that the investigators were not capable,” retired Judge Quentin Kopp said.

After 30 months on the commission, Kopp held a press conference in March 2019 to announce his resignation over the failure of commission staff to properly investigate a complaint by interviewing its subject under oath.

Pelham’s replacement will inherit a significant workload, given the city’s corruption crisis that kicked off in January 2020 and appears to continue to this day.

Bush pointed to the commission’s inability to put in a ballot measure in the last three cycles as a significant problem that will need to be solved.

“We have tried repeatedly to adopt the recommendations of the Controller to improve compliance with ethics laws,” he said. “The Department of Human Resources has insisted we lacked the authority to do so without their approval.”

Alex Mullaney can be reached at