New rules skirt gift limitations 

Elected officials have received tickets to several events this year — including 49ers home games and the Presidents Cup — but new rules mean they can avoid calling them gifts.

City officials are barred from taking more than $420 worth of gifts annually from a single source, but now they can use more than a dozen exceptions to avoid the cap on freebies.

Free tickets have sparked controversy in the past. The Giants used to provide elected officials with Opening Day tickets, but in 2007, the Ethics Commission put a stop to the practice after determining the giveaways violated rules about an organization providing gifts directly to individual city employees.

Despite that ban, city officials continue to receive free admission to events — such as the annual Outside Lands festival in Golden Gate Park and the Presidents Cup at Harding Park Golf Course — since the Recreation and Park Department acquires the tickets as part of contract agreements with organizers. With the 49ers, the Candlestick Park lease agreement includes a stipulation for free tickets for Rec and Park. Presidents Cup tickets ranged in price from $35 to $75 per day, and tickets for the Niners are $98 apiece.

The department then distributes the tickets to officials, including Board of Supervisors members, who approve many of the contracts for large-scale events.

In the past, city officials were issued free tickets and did not have to disclose if or how they had used them. A recently adopted state regulation, however, has altered that.

Now, new rules are in place for how Rec and Park — which is the sole department in The City that distributes free tickets to officials — can dole out the freebies. The system, which started Sept. 20, was also put into place to increase public disclosure.

Any elected official or city worker must treat the tickets as official gifts, and they are not supposed to take more than $420 worth from one source. However, there are exceptions, which include donating the tickets to nonprofits or declaring them as income, according to a city attorney memo about the state regulation.

Included in the state guidelines is an exemption that allows a city department to develop a policy for distribution that, if followed, would allow officials to avoid calling free tickets gifts. The policy Rec and Park established allows 14 such exemptions, including “gathering public input on city facilities and spaces.”

Every city official except one who has received tickets since Sept. 20 — the first 49ers home game since the regulations took effect — reported that they used the tickets for “gathering public input on city facilities and spaces” or donated them to charities.

Under the new rules, Rec and Park has distributed about 30 tickets per 49ers home game. The tickets range in value from $98 to $119.

The department also distributed 277 tickets — ranging in value, depending on the day, from $35 to $75 — for the six-day Presidents Cup.
Free tickets for last summer’s Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival were distributed before the new rules were enacted.

Supervisors differ on definition of city business

Since a new ticket policy went into place, many city officials reported that the free tickets they receive for events were used for official city
business.

Supervisor Chris Daly said he “couldn’t with a straight face” make that claim.

Daly has opted instead to declare tickets — two for the Oct. 4 Niners game and two golf tournament tickets — as taxable income.

“Giving them back is probably the safest thing, but declaring them as income is probably the next-safest thing,” Daly said. “I like things cut-and-dry.”

Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, whose district includes the stadium, and Supervisor Eric Mar received tickets for the “public purpose” of “ensuring the officials are familiar with public resources,” they state in their report forms. So far, Maxwell has received two $98 tickets for Sept. 20, Oct. 4 and Oct. 11 49ers games. Supervisor Eric Mar received two $98 49ers tickets for the Oct. 4 game.

Maxwell said it is “important to know the stadium” amid discussions about traffic flow and parking.

“I’ve never been able to afford 49ers tickets,” Mar said. “I see it as a legitimate way that allows me to learn about the stadium and the 49ers as a city supervisor.”

Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier was the city official who received the most tickets for the Presidents Cup event — four tickets for each day of the event. She did not return calls seeking comment. — Joshua Sabatini

A fresh label for freebies

New policy rules allow city officials to accept tickets for free and not declare them as gifts. The new rules went into place Sept. 20.

Sept. 20 49ers game
                     Number     Ticket     How tickets
Supervisor    of tickets    value    were declared
Eric Mar    2    $98    Donated to nonprofit
Carmen Chu    2    $98    Donated to nonprofit
Sophie Maxwell     2    $98    *Official knowledge

Oct. 4 49ers game
                    Number     Ticket     How tickets
Supervisor    of tickets    value    were declared
Michela Alioto-Pier    2    $98    Donated to nonprofit
Carmen Chu    2    $98    Donated to nonprofit
Sean Elsbernd    2    $98    Donated to nonprofit
Eric Mar    2    $98    *Official knowledge
Sophie Maxwell    2    $98    *Official knowledge

Oct. 11 49ers game
                    Number     Ticket     How tickets
Supervisor    of tickets    value    were declared
Michela Alioto-Pier    2    $98    Donated to nonprofit
Carmen Chu    2    $98    Donated to nonprofit
Eric Mar    2    $98    Donated to nonprofit
Sean Elsbernd    2    $98    Donated to nonprofit
Sophie Maxwell    2    $98    Official knowledge*
Chris Daly    2    $98    Received as income

Oct. 6-11 Presidents Cup
                     Number         How tickets
Supervisor    of tickets        were declared
Eric Mar    12        *Official knowledge
Sophie Maxwell    12        *Official knowledge
Carmen Chu    12        *Official knowledge
David Chiu    12        *Official knowledge
Chris Daly    4        Received as income
David Campos     4        *Official knowledge
Ross Mirkarimi    12        *Official knowledge
Michela Alioto-Pier    24        *Official knowledge
Bevan Dufty    1        *Official knowledge
Sean Elsbernd    2        *Official knowledge

*Tickets used to ensure officials are familiar with public resources

Source: Recreation and Park Department

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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