I often feel compelled to remind people that the Ethics Commission cannot initiate an investigation simply because it learns about something that should be investigated. Most people don’t seem to know that we’re powerless to generate our own complaints. Instead, we are entirely dependent on others to tell us what to investigate.
When I read media stories about potential ethics violations, I have to wait (somewhat impatiently, I’ll admit) to see if someone will file a complaint with the commission. Sometimes the complaint comes in, sometimes not. Say, for example, that voiceofsandiego.org prints a story about two city candidates who have both allegedly accepted what appear to be improper campaign contributions. If a voiceofsandiego.org reader has a particular axe to grind against one of the candidates, we may get a complaint about that candidate. The complaint could result in a fine that damages the candidate’s reputation.
But what about the other candidate? Shouldn’t the commission also look into whether the other candidate committed a violation? Unless someone makes a complaint about the other candidate, however, the commission has no choice but to sit idly by, powerless to investigate that candidate.
When the commission was created in 2001, the City Council was concerned about creating an enforcement agency that would engage in political witch hunts. To address this concern, they wrote the law to require that the commission receive a complaint from a member of the public (or the City Clerk under specific circumstances) before conducting an investigation. In the past few years, however, it has become clear that these procedures have had an unintended effect: as illustrated above, they have enabled the commission to be used as a political tool and limited the commission’s ability to investigate publicly known alleged wrongdoing. When political motivations determine who the commission investigates, or more importantly who the commission does not investigate, there’s a problem that needs to be fixed.
And that fix may be on its way. I’m pleased to report that the commission’s hands may soon be untied as a result of the Rules Committee’s recent approval of proposed changes to the commission’s investigative procedures. If these procedures are also approved by the full City Council, the commission will be able to take action when learning of an apparent violation of the city’s campaign, lobbying, or ethics laws. Having this ability will ensure that these laws are evenly enforced. Other proposed changes will encourage citizens to file well grounded complaints without fear of potential retaliation.
Los Angeles and San Francisco already give their Ethics Commission staffs the ability to initiate investigations on their own. In fact, their staffs can do so without getting approval from their respective commissions.
By comparison, if the proposed changes are approved by the San Diego City Council, our staff will be able to self-generate complaints, but such complaints must still pass through a formal review process by the commission before an investigation can commence. It’s a logical process that promotes fairness and lets the commission do the job it was created to do.