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UncategorizedOPINION: A perspective on Ethics reform

OPINION: A perspective on Ethics reform

The nonprofit dispute over Prop. C


By Larry Bush

OCTOBER 30, 2015 — Some nonprofits, and the newly revived Bay Guardian, are opposing Proposition C, which would change lobbying rules. Let me give some perspective.

The measure in almost all respects it is the same law that existed up until 2009. That law also covered unions, nonprofits and anyone else who spent money to get the public to lobby city hall. No change, and in fact unions like the firefighters and nurses filed when they were spending money to ask the public to lobby city hall.

Second, it does not cover unions getting their members to turn out at City Hall nor does it cover nonprofits that get their members to turn out. The law specifically exempts member communication. It only counts if you reach to the larger public, as Waste Management did in urging the public to ask the Board for an EIR on the Recology contract.

Prop. C is supported by a number of nonprofits – the League of Women Voters, Sierra Club, and San Francisco Tomorrow are just a few. It is also supported by employee associations like the Municipal Employees Association. It should be noted that one of the five Ethics Commissioners who unanimously placed this on the ballot is the head of a nonprofit serving survivors of HIV.

There were two hearings, a month apart, at the Ethics Commission, attended by such seasoned City Hall advocates as Sue Hestor who urged that this not be watered down.

Perhaps the worst idea is to have the Board decide who qualifies as lobbying its own members. Look how the board played the politics of self-interest on Airbnb and the Mission Moratorium.

The last time the supervisors rewrote the lobby law they ended up exempting all 501c3 nonprofits and smaller 501c4 nonprofits. So Kaiser, CPMC, the. Parks Alliance and all the others out there now can lobby City Hall and none of us know -about it. Even out-of-state groups with nonprofit in their charter can secretly write proposed laws or regs, urge funding, and even rewrite our tax codes to favor their donors.

Think that happens? Whatever were they thinking or were they just helping some friends and damn the unintended consequences.

Still ahead is how to write the regulations if voters approve Prop C. Will members be defined as those who are being served by a nonprofit or just those who pay dues to an organization? Will writing an analysis count if is part of a group’s mission or only if it is written for lobbying purposes? Will the exemption remain when an official asks for information — or is it only lobbying if the approach is to the official?

That’s the stuff of regs, not laws.

I hope if nothing else this discussion will awaken more people to the fact that the Ethics Commission can be an important part of our civic life and direction. It’s been too easy to think the members are just umpires calling strikes and fouls long after the game is over and the players have gone home.

Ethics played that role at the beginning with the authority to go to the ballot. It’s how we got public financing of campaigns after the Board twice defeated proposals. It’s what we will count on to address pay to play politics, knowing no board will do more than lip service.

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.


  1. The Commissioners are beginning to stand on their own. The hiring of a new executive director which is underway now after lickspittle toady St. Croix resigned will shed light on how the Commission will conduct itself moving forward.

  2. Does the Ethics Commission really have the independence to make evaluations? Seems like another city agency being abused as a political tool.

    Seems like they very rarely rule in favor of the complaint.

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