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Time to overhaul ethics laws

May 29, 2013 – excerpt

San Francisco has its own playbook when it comes to getting a big project through City Hall.

Hire a lawyer who’s exempt from registering as a paid agent and do the persuading out of the limelight. Spread donations around town to nonprofits and community groups who can be tapped for help when a decision looms. Then wait for months – or maybe years – before an under-funded Ethics Commission notices if any good-government rules were broken…

Rein in the lobbyists

Key proposals for changing public ethics rules in San Francisco:

  • Attorneys who act as lobbyists would need to register for the first time. Fees over $1,000 per month must be reported. Among the name-brand figures who would be roped in by this change is former Mayor Willie Brown, a columnist for this newspaper. Because he’s a lawyer, he’s not now required to divulge his lobbying work.
  • Developers of major projects would need to report donations of $5,000 or more to nonprofits. Now, project sponsors build goodwill and collect endorsements by giving money to such groups, which may know little about a building plan. The donations can create a misleading picture of public support for a controversial condo tower, housing project or hospital expansion.
  • Permit expediters must register. These operatives guide proposals ranging from home remodeling projects to 50-story buildings through the planning and permit process. Hiring an expediter can lift essential paperwork to the top of the pile.
  • City contracts would be more open. Lobbyists are paid to win bids for city contracts and then pursue the work if problems develop or overruns surface. This largely anonymous work would be highlighted by public disclosure.
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