SF open government and ethics oversight broken, report says 

San Francisco's political culture impedes transparent and ethical government despite commissions and task forces set up by voters to ensure The City is run openly and ethically, according to a civil grand jury report released last week.

"San Francisco officials at all levels have impeded actions intended to establish a culture of ethical behavior, and that the focus needed to ensure accountability and anti-corruption standards needs greater leadership," noted the report.

The report's most damning recommendation is that political corruption cases should be handled by California's oversight body, the Fair Political Practices Commission, on a trial basis instead of The City's own oversight bodies, such as the Ethics Commission.

"Enforcement," the report said, "is best handled outside of the environment of political partisanship and preferences."

Other findings include:

- The City's whistle-blower protection program is weak and ineffective.

- Fines and penalties vary arbitrarily even in similar cases.

- In some cases, improper campaign contributions were returned to the donor instead of forfeited to the City. The practice, the report noted, should be audited by the City Attorney's Office.

- Not all electronic filings compiled by the Ethics Commission, such as campaign contributions, can easily be searched or cross referenced, leaving the true nature of influence veiled.

- Indentifying lobbyists remains unclear and keeps the public in the dark when it comes to understanding who influences City Hall.

- Rules governing emails and electronic records are weak and often lead to the destruction of records that might be subject to public-records requests.

- Ethical breaches, such as conflicts of interest, are not reported to the Ethics Commission, leaving the public in the dark when city employees are acting unethically.

Ethics Commission Executive Director John St. Croix said that while he agrees with many of the report's findings, only so much can be done since the commission's resources are limited.

"There are some good suggestions in here for some things that we can do better," St. Croix said. "But there's a lack of resources to do a lot of this stuff."

That being said, St. Croix defended the commission, saying the body has been improving its record as time goes by.

The Mayor's Office and the Sunshine Taskforce, which oversees open-government rules, did not respond to requests for comment.

The 19-member civil grand jury investigates and evaluates the operations and actions of local government. As an advisory body, they have no power to compel city government to change how it operates.

About The Author

Jonah Owen Lamb

Jonah Owen Lamb

Born and raised on a houseboat in Sausalito, Lamb has written for newspapers in New York City, Utah and the San Joaquin Valley. He was most recently an editor at the San Luis Obispo Tribune for nearly three years. He has written for The S.F. Examiner since 2013 and covers criminal justice and planning.
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