Over the past few weeks, there has been a bit of tension between the City Council and the Ethics Commission. Anyone who’s read Voice or the San Diego Union-Tribune has probably discerned that. It stemmed from some comments made by council members to me during three open meetings. These comments related to, among other things, the level of fines the commission has issued (some council members thought they were too high), and our practice of issuing press releases advising the public about our fines and other measures the commission believes is important to the public — one council member thought we shouldn’t be issuing press releases at all. This tension is understandable and to a certain extent a logical result of a maturing relationship between the commission and the officials under its jurisdiction.
Every member of the City Council has supported the commission from its inception. This has included strong support during recent steps to fine tune the commission’s operating procedures, augment its enforcement powers as well as every year during budget deliberations. The council members should each be commended for this because at every step they have put the power to publicly criticize and fine them in the hands of commissioners that they do not have control over.
It is understandable that these same officials might raise concerns about how the commission’s actions affect them personally. Nevertheless, for the commission to be effective and retain the public trust, it is important for it to remain independent. Public criticism by officials that have the power to abolish the commission by ordinance or diminish its budget undermines that independence and could be seen as an attempt to intimidate commissioners or the commission’s staff. I do not believe this was occurring in the last couple weeks or that these officials lose the right to criticize us if the commission has gone astray, but such actions should not be taken lightly.
Because there were specific concerns raised by our council members, I think it important to discuss the facts related to these issues. Since its inception, the commission has levied 85 fines. Seven of those fines (or 8 percent) have been over $5,000.00 (the number that seemed to be concerning the council members). Another 22 (or 25 percent) were between $1,000 and $5,000 and the vast majority, 68 percent, have been under $1,000. While I understand the concern for fines over $5,000, certain violations of our city’s campaign finance, ethics and lobbying ordinances must have consequences in order to effectively deter future violations. Similarly, we issue press releases for almost every fine we levy. The exception to this historically has been for fines that are very minor or for conduct that is particularly unexceptional. The purpose of these press releases is not to publicly criticize anyone, but rather to educate the public and those under our jurisdiction as to what the law is. Perhaps most importantly, we have a dedicated staff position that focuses entirely on educating those under our jurisdiction about what the law and rules they must follow is. This individual also fields hundreds of calls a year asking for informal advice.
I am very proud of the work the commission does both in educating those who are under our jurisdiction on the law they must follow and on our approach to enforcement. Indeed, when I speak at public events, I am often told how responsive our staff is when questions come up within the regulated community. In addition, the commission goes through great efforts to ensure that anyone that has violated a law is treated fairly, with respect and given every opportunity to explain the transgression. When it appears to the commissioners that the law is clear and the official knew or should have known its content, we require a fine so that it is clear to everyone that there are consequences to violating the city’s laws. If there is any question about the training materials or clarity of the rules, we often side with those under investigation and dismiss the complaint with a letter then explaining the law. We will then often send out information to the regulating community clarifying the law so that these mistakes are not made in the future. In determining the level of fine, we take into account every factor that has relevance — including the knowledge of the official, the level of cooperation with the commission’s investigation and the importance of the public policy the rule violated seeks to enforce.
I believe that the city of San Diego is better for having this group of volunteers working to increase transparency and accountability in government. My hope and operating assumption is that the members of the City Council recognize the important things the commission does in its work and that they will continue, as they all have in the past, to support the commission’s efforts.