Saturday, May 06, 2006 | The San Diego city government’s current ethics enforcement arm is seeking to be lengthened at the same time Mayor Jerry Sanders is aiming to build a new Office of Ethics and Integrity, causing some city leaders to scratch their heads wondering how much the cash-strapped city should spend on a subject that has plagued it in recent years.
The City Council on Friday heard budget requests for the upcoming year from both the Ethics Commission – whose representatives said they need more staff members to investigate and prevent ethics infractions – and the new Office of Ethics and Integrity, which is fighting to avoid the budget axe of a skeptical council that is seeking money for other programs.
Another ethics-oriented program, the public integrity unit of the City Attorney’s Office, will present its budget at a May 15 council meeting.
Council members are grappling with the roles each agency proposes to play at City Hall. The council is trying to balance the need for preventing ethical lapses within a government that is currently under investigation for questionable financial practices, while also trying to secure money in an already-thin budget for more police protection, a retiree health care fund, graffiti removal and new fire stations.
“I’m not saying the mission of these offices is not appropriate, I’m just not sure if it’s cost-efficient,” said Councilman Tony Young, whose comments during the budget hearing reflected his desire to spend more on police officers and recreation programs.
The Ethics Commission was established in 2001 as one of the 10 goals former Mayor Dick Murphy set for the city when he initially took office. The commission, which is supposed to operate outside of the purview of the city bureaucracy, provides mandatory ethics training for elected officials and their staffs, department heads and persons who sit on city boards and commissions.
With a staff of six, the Ethics Commission’s size pales in comparison with those in other major cities. Stacy Fulhorst, the commission’s executive director, asked the council Friday for an extra $202,000, mostly to pay for an additional investigator and a training officer.
“These two positions are not going to put us in a position to be comparable with other ethics commissions,” she said. However, a funding boost would be a tremendous relief to an overburdened staff, he said.
The commission’s budget, which Sanders’ proposal sets at $535,000 for the coming year, is not enough to handle all of the complaints that agency receives, Fulhorst said. After launching 75 investigations this year, the commission was unable to dig into another 25 complaints that were filed last year, she said.
“With the load we have, we’re starting to have trouble completing investigations within a year of the complaint,” she said.
The mayor’s budget reflects a $135,000 cut in the Ethics Commission’s budget from last year. The Mayor’s Office has said that was a mistake and the funding will be restored, but has not said where the $135,000 will come from.
Several council members wanted a better understanding of how the existing Ethics Commission stacked up against one of Sanders’ hallmark changes to the city structure he now sees, the Office of Ethics and Integrity.
“It’s absolutely apples and oranges,” Fulhorst said. “It’s not feasible for one of us to do the work of the other.”
Jo Anne SawyerKnoll, who heads the Office of Ethics and Integrity, told the council that her office will be more about training rank-and-file employees about conflicts of interest and discrimination, collecting tips about abuse or waste through a third-party telephone hotline, and conducting an audit to measure how ethical the organization’s practices are.
Sanders aide Jeff Gattas said the mayor saw the new office as “an important element to restructuring the city.” The mayor has dedicated about $1.5 million to the nine-person office, which opened in February.
In addition to the council’s questions about the office’s usefulness, at least one labor leader has sounded off that the new office would change the working conditions for employees by requiring surveys, a code of conduct and mandatory ethics training.
The city would have to open up proper negotiations before the office launched those programs, white-collar union president Judie Italiano said.
SawyerKnoll said she was aware that some sort of meet-and-confer hearings would have to be hammered out in the future, but was not specific.
City Attorney Mike Aguirre said that he doesn’t think his office’s public integrity unit will be cut, despite hints by some of his political foes on the council to pay extra scrutiny to Aguirre’s budget.
“There is a requirement to investigate and prosecute Political Reform Act laws,” Aguirre said.
The council is required to pass a budget by June 30, but will likely approve a spending plan by the end of the month. Council members thanked the ethics agencies for their presentations, but said they still have questions about their necessity in light of the other programs they want to fund.
Ethics “is something that’s needed, but I also feel that way about police fire and cultural arts programs,” Councilman Ben Hueso said.
– Staff writer Andrew Donohue contributed to this report.
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