San Francisco learns a costly lesson about free speech 

‘Limitations on contributions to political committees … have been struck down as limitations on free speech,” read part of then-Supervisor Barbara Kaufman’s opposition to Proposition O in the November 2000 voter guide. As The City prepares to pay $290,000 to settle a case against Prop. O, which will never again be enforced, I dare say the warning was prescient.

Prop. O was a ballot measure that set a limit on the amount of money any person could give to an “independent expenditure committee” at $500 per committee and $3,000 total to all committees. Those particular committees advocate for or against candidates and ballot measures but aren’t affiliated with the actual candidate or cause.

Voters narrowly endorsed Prop. O in 2000, and it remained in effect until 2007, when it was challenged by the Committee on Jobs and the Building Owners and Managers Association of San Francisco, which immediately asked a federal judge to issue an injunction against Prop. O on the grounds that The City had not shown that such strict contribution limits were justified. Legally, political contributions are “speech” and you have to have a darn good reason to impinge on free speech.  

The City argued that the purpose of the law was to prevent corruption, but the judge disagreed, writing that the anti-corruption argument only works when contributions are directly to candidates, not independent committees. According to the injunction order, the “absence of prearrangement and coordination of an expenditure with the candidate or his agent not only undermines the value of the expenditure to the candidate, but also alleviates the danger that expenditures will be given as a quid pro quo for improper commitments from the candidate.”

But the injunction was only temporary: the parties still needed to litigate the issues of whether the law violated the U.S. Constitution. As luck would have it, the city of San Jose passed a law very similar to Prop. O and the challenge to that law was already moving through the federal courts, so the San Francisco lawsuit was put on hold until we could see the result of the San Jose case.

In April 2010, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appealsmade it official: Strict limits on contributions to independent expenditures are unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

On Thursday, the Rules Committee of the Board of Supervisors will vote on the agreement that the City Attorney’s Office negotiated with the plaintiffs to settle the case: nullify the law and pay nearly $300,000.  

Back in 2000, the San Francisco Republican Party warned that Prop. O was unconstitutional and wrote in the voter guide, “Hasn’t the City already wasted enough money on these losing battles?”

Apparently not.

Leasing city wires is still tangled up in the details

The Department of Technology recently completed a study of whether it is feasible to lease access to some of the fiber optic wire owned, but not currently used, by The City. Noting that educational institutions, nonprofits and Internet service providers might jump at such a program the study concluded that leasing fiber optic wire could bring in up to $1.8 million per year.  

The study said that, before we get excited, one thing we need to do is “develop a more robust fiber inventory and mapping system in order to document fiber routes.” That, ladies and gentlemen, is bureaucrat-speak for “we don’t know where all this stuff is or how much we have of it.”

With talent like this behind it, there’s obviously no way the San Francisco Fiber Optic Store can fail.

Adachi OK ending benefit that’s often good to lawyers

Recently, Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s pension reform bill has been criticized for leaving intact a retirement benefit that a number of lawyers enjoy.

Actually, any city employee can get the benefit, but since it is for people who only work for The City for more than five years but leave before retirement age, lawyers often take advantage of the benefit because they tend to move on after a few years with The City.

The retirement payoff for short-timers that I am referring to is the annuity benefit, and it works like this: Any employee who has five years of service gets an annuity made up of the employee’s retirement contribution — usually 7.5 percent of salary.

Let’s imagine an employee who is 38 and has worked for The City for 10 years. When she leaves, she’s too young to retire, so she can elect to take her money out of the system and all she gets is her contributions. If she keeps her money in the system, then when she reaches the retirement age she gets the annuity based on her total contributions plus matching funds from The City, plus a multiplier based on years of service.

It’s true that Mayor Ed Lee’s pension proposal gets rid of The City matching contribution for the annuity, only giving back the employee’s own funds. Note that this only applies to future employees.

It’s also true that Adachi’s plan doesn’t change the annuity directly, though it does raise the minimum retirement age from 50 to 55, so the employee contribution (which may be higher under Adachi’s plan) sits around for longer in The City’s retirement fund, collecting interest.

When called for comment, Adachi said, “I want to be clear that I do support eliminating the city match on the annuity. It just isn’t a huge issue. The program cost $3 million a year, and even if it saves that amount five years from now, it won’t do anything to address The City’s rising pension costs over the next five years. My proposal is focused on the major reforms that can deliver immediate savings.”

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Melissa Griffin

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