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Politics & Policy

San Francisco voters to decide on anti-corruption ballot measure

A person walks through a empty hallway in San Francisco City Hall. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

San Francisco ethics watchdogs have long urged the city to adopt tighter restrictions on gift-giving practices that have in the past opened the door for corruption. Now, the city will take the issue to voters.

The Ethics Commission voted on Aug. 18 to place a package of anti-corruption measures on the March 5, 2024, election ballot. The news comes after two delayed efforts to bring a corruption-related ballot measure to voters, first in the June 2022 special election and again on the Nov. 8, 2022, ballot.

“Our city residents and dedicated public servants alike expect and deserve a city government that works to promote the public good, not personal interests,” said Ethics Commission Vice Chair Theis Finlev. “Reformed conflict of interest laws and increased training for city officials can help ensure that governmental decisions are made on a fair and impartial basis.”

San Francisco City Hall's dome is reflected in a nearby window on Dec. 7, 2021. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

The ballot measure introduces more explicit prohibitions on gift-giving and bribery and adds more required ethics training for city officials.

Other components include:

  • prohibiting members of the public from “acting as intermediaries” for city officials receiving inappropriate gifts; 
  • making city officials personally responsible for not disclosing “certain relationships”; 
  • creating “generally applicable incompatible activity rules”; 
  • requiring supermajority approval from both the Board of Supervisors and the Ethics Commission in order to pass ethics-related amendments.

The Ethics Commission said it introduced the ordinance to address “demonstrated shortcomings in the city’s ethics laws” and prevent future corruption, such as the Mohammed Nuru bribery scandal that rocked San Francisco’s Department of Public Works.

READ MORE: These Are the Players in San Francisco’s Corruption Scandal

The commission drafted the first ballot measure in 2021 in response to the corruption scandals that toppled Nuru, the former director of Public Works, and other officials. In a report, the commission identified continuing corruption risks in ill-defined rules around giving gifts to city departments and officials.

After the second ballot measure was delayed in November 2022, ethics watchdogs blamed a union representing city department heads, saying the union used a bargaining process to stall both proposed ethics ballot measures past key deadlines.

Mohammed Nuru, wearing a black suit, gets into a waiting SUV after leaving court.
Mohammed Nuru, former director of the San Francisco Department of Public Works, walks to his sentencing in federal court. | Source: Paul Kuroda for The Standard

“More robust ethics rules, greater restrictions on gifts, expanded training requirements, and increased transparency regarding the sources of city funding are tools for ensuring city government works for everyone, not just a small minority that engage in, or appear to engage in, ‘pay to play’ actions to secure favorable treatment from city officials,” the ballot measure proposal stated.

If successful on the March ballot, the gift-giving changes would go into effect roughly six months after the election. Implementing the ordinance would cost $43,000 in administrative fees from the 2023-24 General Reserve, according to the commission.

"In the coming weeks, the commission will be putting out additional materials that speak to the factual aspects of what the measure would do if approved by voters," an Ethics Commission representative told The Standard.