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Politics as Usual

An ethical dilemma

Proposition D and the illusion of action

On the March 2024 election ballots, San Francisco residents will be asked to vote for Proposition D to change city ethics laws and expand the restrictions on gifts to city officials and employees. Proposition D might just be a well-intentioned measure that makes people think they’re solving a problem without actually doing anything.

It’s just one of a raft of ballot measures, some sublime, some ridiculous. Of the latter, there is Proposition B regarding “Police Officer Staffing Levels Conditioned on Amending Existing or Future Tax Funding,” which was originally intended to ensure the city fills open police positions, but it was hijacked by a supervisor who turned it into a parody of its former self. An example of the former is Proposition E, Mayor Breed’s initiative to let police officers do more policing and less kowtowing to the Police Commission. How those two measures fare will tell us a lot about whether city voters are still rosy-eyed about progressives in City Hall.

But I’m unconvinced Proposition D will tell us much of anything. Worse, I’m not sure it will do anything about the problem it is purportedly trying to address. Like Proposition B, it might make people feel as if something — anything, enough of something — is being done about the corruption that has led to a series of revelations about various city officials being investigated by federal authorities for bribery, misappropriation of public money, and conflicts of interest. But it might have no more impact than a mean tweet directed at the bad apples.

LOOK BUSY

In his official statement, Ben Rosenfield, controller for the City and County of San Francisco, writes that Proposition D “expands rules and prohibitions on gift-giving, bribery, behested payments, and conflicts of interest for City staff, elected officials, departments, and lobbyists. The proposed ordinance also requires annual ethics trainings for City employees with decision making authority. If passed, the proposed ordinance would also require a supermajority approval from both the Board of Supervisors and the Ethics Commission to amend most City ethics laws.”

You’ll forgive me for being skeptical.

I split my time these days between San Francisco and Chicago, and as much as I still retain my Wisconsin-bred good government principles, I really don’t have high expectations for Chicago politics. Keep the streets clean, fight crime, keep the corruption down to a respectable level. Kind of like your attitude toward a dangerous neighbor who blasts music too loudly and engages in all kinds of illegal behavior; just keep it down to a low roar because I’m scared of finding out what all is really going on.

But San Francisco — can’t you do better?

BUSYBODIES

Regarding Proposition D, I am intrigued that city employees deemed to be “deciders” will undergo annual ethics training. Does anyone think that any of the people who have been accused or even convicted of serious wrongdoing of the type Susan Reynolds regularly covers in these pages didn’t know that what they were doing was against the rules? Do you expect the head of the Department of Musical Chairs or Whatever to be sitting in a training class and be struck with an epiphany, “Oh my god! I didn’t know it was wrong to accept a $37,000 kickback from our HVAC supplier. Good thing I didn’t skip training class today!” Problem solved!

As for the expanded list of banned gifts, will that really change things? 

The problem isn’t that the laws were too lax. Whatever the rules were, they were ignored. Add some more rules, they’ll be ignored, too. The problem is the people who were hired, appointed, or elected to positions who lacked the morals to avoid the graft and grift.

I had a university professor who was a China expert. In his earlier days, he had apparently been well to the left politically, so much so that China’s Maoist government let him come and study a “model” Maoist village. He soon stopped seeing communism through rose-colored glasses, and in one of my classes he was talking about corruption in communist systems. He made the point that there are always high-profile anticorruption campaigns going on in communist systems, because the systems simply can’t function without corruption. (Because, to be blunt, Marxist economics doesn’t work.) That gives whoever is in power the tool to go after internal enemies by accusing them of corruption. Which is often true; what’s left unsaid is that the people doing the accusing are also hip-deep in corruption, or they wouldn’t have risen to their positions of power in the first place.

It doesn’t mean that communist governments can’t go on, decade after decade, anticorruption campaign after anticorruption campaign. But it raises the question of whether San Francisco’s own deep corruption problems can be excised from the rest of the body politic without reforming the whole. I’m guessing an annual ethics lecture at an airport hotel meeting room won’t do the trick.

Controller Rosenfield estimates Proposition D to have a cost of $43,000 in the first year and about $25,000 a year after that. If it were to serve to significantly clean up San Francisco’s government, it would be the deal of the century. But if it doesn’t, it’s just thousands of dollars more down the same dirty drain.

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