Close the City Hall Casino

By : sfexaminer – excerpt

It’s a sting when an undercover cop gets someone on the record involved in a crime.

But when it is “pay-to-play” politics, it’s not the perp who gets stung.

It’s all of us who are stung — voters, taxpayers and residents.

We pay a corruption tax when pay-to-play results in city contracts, development permits, rewritten tax codes or actions that benefit somebody rather than everybody.

“You got to pay to play here. We got it. We know this. We are the best at this game … better than New York,” an FBI wiretap recorded one mayoral fundraiser, explaining how to handle illegal contributions.

The irony is that in San Francisco, it’s easy to engage in play-to-politics without breaking the law. City Hall is run like a casino, where the game is fixed and the house wins every time…

“You got to pay to play here. … We are the best at this game.”

That appears ready to change.

Three things are lining up: public disgust at political corruption; a more aggressive Ethics Commission; and the arrival of a new commission executive director, LeeAnn Pelham…

The first sign that the Ethics Commission will end it’s go-along, get-along practices was the Ethics Commission vote to reject the
mayor’s budget cut request and instead callfor an increase so it can be a real Ethics Commission.

They have a lot of catching up to do…

Pelham’s budget will beef up enforcement, finally filling a vacant investigator position. She also wants much better public disclosure by finally switching from paper files to electronic files easy for the public to search and sort. Furthermore, she’s called for a policy unit to address loopholes and fixing laws long out of date.

If she can move San Francisco to adopt the kind of pay-to-play protections that existed in Los Angeles, where she was the Ethics executive director for 10 years, it would inhibit if not prevent the kind of corrupt relationship now on trial here…

San Francisco, most of all, needs to reinstate a law approved by 83 percent of our voters in the 2000 election, which banned those seeking city approval of their projects — whether land variance, franchise, contract or other agreement — from giving contributions, gifts and pay that benefit city officials.

In a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t maneuver, in 2003 the law was amended out of existence with virtually no public awareness of the provisions buried deep in a rewrite of conflict of interest laws.

Mayor Lee should endorse the new Ethics budget proposal, and City Hall should move now — quickly — to act on the loopholes that make City Hall a casino where the game is always fixed.

These loopholes can be closed long before the June election when money once again will find its way out of our pockets and into the pockets of those who run City Hall.

Larry Bush writes in CitiReport and was a speechwriter and policy adviser for former Mayor Art Agnos. He is a founder of Friends of Ethics, a volunteer group working with the Ethics Commission to improve its performance.
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