Thursday, March 15, 2007 | The city of San Diego’s Ethics Commission last year levied more than $43,000 in fines.

This year, so far, it’s on track to hand out even more.

The city’s most visible politicians and insiders — personalities like Mike Aguirre, Peter Q. Davis, Ron Roberts and now Tony Young — have paid up.

The commission has levied an increasing amount of fines each year. So when Stacey Fulhorst, the agency’s manager, went in front of the City Council last year to justify her budget, she got an interesting question.

The council, she remembered, asked why she didn’t outline the “projected revenue” from the fines over the coming year to give a better idea of the costs and benefits of the commission.

She laughs about it now.

“We thought that might send the wrong signal,” she said. It probably would. While it’s easy to imagine that, in coming years, city officials and candidates for public office will continue to stumble over the many rules that regulate their actions, you certainly don’t want to assume they will and build a budget around it.

That’d be like planning a family vacation for the week six months from now, when you expect your kid to get suspended from school.

You may know your kid is probably going to mess around, but you don’t want to depend on it.

Truth is, the Ethics Commission has been a machine over the last couple of years, and not just with its enforcement arm. It is coming closer and closer to successfully implementing one of the most interesting pieces of legislation in the city’s recent history. If passed, the law may shine a light into the wrinkles of influence at City Hall that is brighter than any of the flashlights we have now.

The concept is simple but complicated to explain. I’ve tried to do it before. I’ll try again.

If you know anything about local government, you probably know that anyone can go and look at who gave money to help elected officials reach their posts. It’s all public and — once it’s online — it’ll be extremely easy to access.

But only a few people, it seems, understand how that money actually gets to candidates. Sure, a candidate for public office, at least one who is not super wealthy, has to spend a good portion of his or her time on the phone with potential donors. It must be a difficult task. I’m told that some donors, no matter their sympathy for a candidate, simply won’t cough it up until they’ve received the obligatory phone call.

These individual donations, however, are small. By my count, a candidate for, say, mayor needs more than 1,000 people to give the minimum donation to even think about being competitive in a race without large investments of personal wealth supplementing the effort.

So who gathers up these donations? Even the most popular of folks could hardly open up a shop that says “Drop your $250 off here and get a sticker and a button!” to get the job done. No, there’s an efficient little system in place.

People who want to influence decisions at City Hall help gather these donations. Many of these people are considered lobbyists by trade.

Sometimes they gather these funds at the behest of the campaign itself. In other words, a campaign manager will have an amount in mind of how much money he or she needs to raise to wage a successful bid for office. And they will go to sympathetic lobbyists and get them to agree to bring in a certain amount of money.

The lobbyist will then go to their clients and start gathering checks. Anybody can give money — they all just have to disclose who they are. A business’ employees can give personal checks, a business just can’t reimburse them.

The lobbyist and the campaign will then decide on a system to make sure the lobbyist gets credit for raising that amount of money. They’ll mark envelopes or send some other type of signal to the campaign making sure that the campaign is aware of the service they provided.

I know, it’s fascinating. But it’s perfectly legal.

The Ethics Commission just got a City Council committee to sign off on a proposed law that would shine a light on this whole process. If the full City Council approves of it sometime this summer, the law will force lobbyists to disclose just how much money they helped raise for a candidate.

In other words, if Joe Lobbyist helps funnel the mayor $40,000 for his re-election campaign, we’ll get to see. And the definition of what makes you a lobbyist is clearer than ever. If it’s your job to influence a public decision, whether you work for a union or a business, or a professional dog-walking association, you better start turning in your crib sheets.

Thanks to the Ethics Commission, we’ll have more information than ever available to decide just who really was responsible for getting a person elected to office.

Now, just because a lobbyist helps raise several thousand dollars for a candidate doesn’t mean that the candidate, once elected, will bow down to every wish of that person.

But it’s naive to think that they won’t have a bit more access than your average Joe.

Ben Clay, a lobbyist who has worked for years trying to influence state legislation in Sacramento put it succinctly the other day: “When you have lobbyists arrange for campaign contributions or act as fundraisers, you’re going to have all sorts of aberrant behavior. When lobbyists become fundraisers, it puts an unnecessary burden on the system.”

Clay said that a lawmaker is more likely to judge a lobbyist’s message by its merit and logic if he or she hasn’t been on the welcoming end of that lobbyist’s prolific fundraising skills.

Clay, it should be noted, said the Ethics Commission should have just tried to ban all fundraising by lobbyists.

In fact, that was an idea. The commission thought it was too radical and voted it down.

But it settled on something perhaps lesser in effect, but nonetheless powerful, and I have to give the commissioners credit.

Though it was created with a very narrow mission and some of its potential tools were locked in a case, the commission has proven to be an efficient and increasingly influential body. It may not have kept San Diego from experiencing the worst of its crisis of conscience in the last couple of years. But it has changed the way people treat the electoral process here more dramatically than any other agency in town.

Its effective enforcement efforts, its endless auditing of the boxes and boxes of campaign disclosures have successfully given notice to candidates, lobbyists, insiders, unions and others that someone is, indeed, watching.

The Ethics Commission has navigated the legislative system before. It persuaded the City Council not long ago to pass a law that keeps elected officials from raising money for their next campaign until that election is one year away. It’s awkward a bit as potential candidates learn to manage it, but the spirit is a powerful one. Focus on doing your job, the Ethics Commission said. Don’t spend any more time than is needed to maneuver for a new job.

While the laws these people trip over seem petty at times, they were created for a reason. Forcing candidates and important people in San Diego to pay fines when they fail to abide by them sends a strong message directly from the public: It is important to pay attention to the principles of openness and accountability that the residents helped codify in law.

Anybody who effectively communicates something like that deserves gratitude.

Please contact Scott Lewis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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