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Politics & Policy

Mayor Breed accused of gutting San Francisco Ethics Commission after FBI probe

Mayor London Breed walks in UN Plaza
Mayor London Breed departs a meeting held at United Nations Plaza in San Francisco on May 23, 2023. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

Mayor London Breed has been accused of gutting the San Francisco Ethics Commission in the wake of high-profile indictments of former city officials.

The first round of San Francisco’s budget review process saw sparks fly as members of the Board of Supervisors’ Budget Committee slammed the spending plan recommended for the city’s ethics watchdog by the Mayor’s Office.

The Ethics Commission’s Acting Executive Director Gayathri Thaikkendiyil presented the recommended budget as including significant reductions in operating funds and staff over the next two fiscal years, particularly to the agency’s ethics training program for city employees and enforcement division. 

“We’re essentially looking at reduced staffing by 47%,” said Thaikkendiyil, describing the reduction of 16 out of the agency’s current 34 positions as significantly impacting its ability to promote transparency and accountability in city government.

The committee presentation follows a statement released June 5 by Commission President Yvonne Lee denouncing the cuts and contrasting the agency’s budget with those of other, larger departments whose budgets have increased. 

That statement also outlined impacts, including a return to a backlog in cases investigated by the enforcement division and the possible cessation of public and press access to campaign finance activity during the 2024 election period.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen speaks at a rally outside City Hall in February 2023.
Supervisor Hillary Ronen speaks outside San Francisco City Hall on Feb. 28, 2023. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard | Source: Michaela Vatcheva/The Standard

After the presentation, committee member Hillary Ronen rhetorically asked, “How many city employees were indicted in the last five years by the FBI? […] I think I can name, like, five off the top of my head. And yet despite that, the mayor’s gutting the ethics department?”

Ronen described the cuts as “extremely alarming,” asking Breed’s Budget Director Anna Duning for an explanation. 

Duning explained the agency had started a number of programs in past years staffed with temporary positions that are expiring, and the department is presenting many of them as cuts. 

“Our goal is to work with the new director coming on with the Ethics Commission to understand which of these positions should be funded on an ongoing basis,” Duning told the committee. “These weren’t necessarily cuts, just not an extension of those positions at this time. […] There was no intention to gut the department.” 

The committee is doing a first round of reviews of department budgets this week, and some, like the Ethics Commission, will likely elicit debate between Breed and the supervisors in a rough budget year where the city faces a budget deficit now estimated at $744 million. 

Other proposed budgets sure to incite controversy include those for the police department and the Department of Early Childhood. Supervisor Myrna Melgar will be holding a press conference tomorrow over concerns about the latter agency’s budget at 10:30 a.m. Thursday at City Hall. 

A second pass of departmental reviews, this time augmented by reports from the Supervisors’ Budget and Legislative Analyst’s Office, will take place over next week. The board must approve a city budget by July 31, and final deliberations are expected to take place June 28.