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Gil Cabrera was considered the provocateur on the city of San Diego’s Ethics Commission — the one who pushed hardest, it seemed, in favor of things like lobbyist fundraising disclosure and campaign finance restrictions.
Among other laws, the Ethics Commission enforces the complex rules embodied in the city’s Election Campaign Control Ordinance. For instance, candidates for City Council are not allowed to raise money for their campaigns until exactly one year before their Election Day.
The rules, and the fines the commission has exacted enforcing them, have infuriated local politicians (and, worse, their lawyers). The commission’s funding, structure and leadership has been attacked.
Cabrera, a lawyer himself, was the commission’s chairman and he served in that position quite well, I thought. But — in a type of civic insult — the mayor refused to reappoint him.
Now, Cabrera and other members of the commission are named in a lawsuit filed by a former City Council candidate, Phil Thalheimer. He is hoping to overturn many of the city’s election laws.
I thought you might be interested in some reflections from Cabrera. I was.
What lessons do you take away from your time on the Ethics Commission?
Running for office is hard and the pressures associated with it and governing can lead to mistakes in judgment. I have marveled at the silly things people have done in an effort to gain an imaginary advantage over a political opponent. On a broader level, I have seen the inefficiency and disorganization within the city bureaucracy first hand. It seems things are often, if not usually, done with little pre-planning, that the departments are not usually pulling their oars at the same time and direction and that the private sector usually out negotiates the city.
A lot of people are complaining about the Ethics Commission’s enforcement — why do you think that is?
I think it’s a combination of the supposed stigma a fine from the “Ethics Commission” has and how those under investigation react to the potential “stigma.” The Commission’s name probably doesn’t help people’s view of the stigma, but I think that is overblown. This overblown concern about the stigma sometimes leads to resistance during the investigative process which, as any investigative professional will tell you, can create the impression that you are trying to hide something.
It is important to remember that we are not a criminal investigative agency. All we can do is levy a fine and generally speaking they are not very large (91 percent or 114 out of 125 fines in eight years have been under $5,000). Thus, in my view, the best thing to do if told you are being investigated by the commission is cooperate, open up your files and then, if one or more laws were violated, negotiate in good faith with the staff to come to a resolution. In my experience, the folks who claim the commission staff was heavy handed are the ones who obfuscated and delayed the staff’s investigative efforts at every stage necessitating more aggressive actions. Some day, when these investigative files become public records, you will be able to see that.
Unfortunately, some people under investigation take shots at the commission publicly knowing that we cannot respond because of limits on our ability to comment on ongoing investigations.
Some of the laws and fines do have to do with some violations that seem petty, though, right?
It goes along with a “broken windows” theory of law enforcement. You enforce all of the laws, even the small ones, in order to make sure people respect the laws overall. We have always tried to ensure that the amount of the fine is commensurate with the type of violation. By way of example, we have “streamlined” programs for people who fail to file their lobbying disclosure forms and statements of economic interests. These respondents pay $100 to $200 fines, but the fines serve a very important purpose in terms of education and deterrence. For instance, during this past year we fined more than 20 lobbyists for failing to file their quarterly disclosure reports on time. After these fines were announced, the number of late filings decreased dramatically. Although some may view the late filing of disclosure reports as “petty,” in my mind, any action or omission where public disclosure/transparency has been compromised is an important thing to enforce.
Would you consider running for political office?
In my youth I would have answered this with a definite yes. Now, with a young family and the benefit of a very close view of what life in politics is like, it is a tougher question. The most I can say is that if I felt I could make a positive difference and balance the roles of public official with father and husband, I would certainly consider it.
What decision will you be paying attention to the most in the coming year and who will be making it?
I’ll be curious to see what announcements/rumors emerge on who will be running for mayor in 2012. I recognize this is far off, but I find myself looking for bold and competent leadership in this town. I expect to hear a lot more of the mayoral aspirant plans in the later half of 2010 and will be crossing my fingers. More specifically, I’ll be looking at the Convention Center expansion and new City Hall decisions to see if they happen and if we are capable of making difficult, but sensible decisions.
Who is the most promising leader in San Diego these days and what do you think he or she might do in 2010?
Going back to my previous answer, I think there is an amazing lack of leadership in San Diego. It feels like we’ve been in crisis mode for almost 10 years now and to my mind no one has really emerged to lead us through it and passed it. I am hoping someone will emerge, but given the electoral cycle, I doubt it will happen in 2010.
What else are you looking forward to in 2010?
Politically, I am looking forward to the Board of Supervisors races. I have come around and now generally believe term limits are a good thing. We have had the same people at the Board since I’ve lived in San Diego. That is too long in my opinion without fresh blood in a governmental body. More generally, I’m looking forward to the economy turning around in earnest and a different vibe compared to 2009. With the highlight of Obama’s inauguration being an exception, 2009 was a real downer of a year. I’m looking forward to seeing the optimism and positive energy of our country and city come back. The economy turning around is the first step in that.
You’re a big connoisseur of local eateries, what’s the best development in local cuisine you’ve seen in the last five years? And what are you looking forward to seeing this year?
I have enjoyed just how far San Diego has come in food choice since I moved here in 1997. There are so many great restaurants of all types now that you truly could miss some even if you go out to dinner a lot. The North Park restaurant renaissance as some of us have called the unbelievable number of great restaurants that have opened there has been probably one of the greatest developments of the last five years. I have also particularly enjoyed the growth of local farms and the use of local ingredients at San Diego restaurants. Now that I am a parent, I am looking forward to exploring more kid friendly high quality local eateries such as Blind Lady Ale House and Lefty’s in Mission Hills which are adult eateries, yet very kid friendly.
Cabrera’s rank of the priority of major projects for the city:
A New Wastewater Recycling System
An Expanded Convention Center
A New City Hall
A Different Airport Infrastructure (not sure what you mean here, but assuming new airport governance structure as opposed to new airport). If new airport, then I would probably lower this.
(Note from SLOP: I meant a new airport.)
An Expanded Mass Transit System (I would focus energy here on high speed rail to the north)
The below are all luxuries that are, in my opinion, low on the priority list if they require general fund dollars (which I think they all do).
A New Central Library — I am also not convinced we have really looked at what the library of the future will look like and considered that in our planning.
A New Stadium
A Performing Arts Center
His rank of local civic problems:
Political System Flaws — This is an old refrain from me, but the way we finance campaigns is flawed in my mind and discourages people from running and allows special interests to exert undue influence over those that do.
Municipal Budget Shortfalls
School Budget Shortfalls
Fire Protection Shortfalls
Water Reliability Concerns
Parks and Recreation Cutbacks
Library Cutbacks or Eliminations
Local Ecological Damage
Mass Transit Shortcomings
— SCOTT LEWIS