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After a confusing session Monday, San Diego City Council unanimously rebuffed proposals by the San Diego Ethics Commission that would have given the Commission subpoena power during investigations and made it unlawful for people to lie to the Commission.

Currently, the Commission can only subpoena witnesses for a hearing, not during the course of an investigation. And there is no process in place for punishing people who lie to the Commission.

Both proposals were referred back to the council’s Rules Committee. As for the enhanced subpoena power, council members were concerned that it would have given individuals, even people who are not on the Ethics Commission, the power to force witnesses to testify. And the proposal regarding punishment for lying to the commission does not allow for a third party to judge whether someone lied.

“These are the kinds of things that have unintended consequences,” said Councilwoman Donna Frye.

Commission Chairman Gil Cabrera said the narrow subpoena power significantly hampers the Commission’s ability to compel witnesses to testify during an investigation. He also said there have been several instances in which witnesses have knowingly lied to the Commission and faced no repercussions.

Cabrera said the Commission is fine with a law that limits subpoena power to the full commission, and that he thought the issue had been resolved at the Sept. 3 Rules Committee meeting. He called Monday’s session “bizarre,” and said it was another in a series of recent displays by council members that give him the sense that the lawmakers want the Commission to go easier on elected officials.

In recent meetings council members have chastised the Commission for what they say are unreasonably high fines, and for press releases issued by the Commission that they feel paint a negative picture of how business is done at City Hall.

Last week, Council President Scott Peters took the Commission to task for a Sept. 30 press release on spending by lobbyists at City Hall, saying it read “like a conviction.” And Monday, Councilman Ben Hueso — who was fined $17,000 in 2007 for taking unlawful campaign contributions — questioned the motivation behind Commission press releases.

“It’s telling that over the course of a week [Council] went from telling us the fines are too high to ‘Why are you issuing press releases?’” Cabrera said. “It suggests that they are turning their back on wanting a strong and independent commission.”

DAVID WASHBURN

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