Proposition C - Ethics Commission Budget and Outside Counsel

Voter Guide

This Charter amendment would require the mayor to submit to the Board of Supervisors, unchanged, the annual budget prepared by the Ethics Commission and the Controller’s Office based on a survey of other agencies in comparable jurisdictions. The budget then would be adopted or amended by the Board of Supervisors. The mayor would not have the ability to reduce or reject any expenditure authorized by the Board. This Charter amendment also would give the Ethics Commission the ability to decide to hire outside counsel to represent the Ethics Commission in matters being investigated by the Commission when the matter involves the City Attorney’s office or one of its employees.

The Charter amendment was placed on the ballot by a vote of the Board of Supervisors. Changes to the City Charter require a majority vote of the electorate. Proposed Charter amendments can be submitted to the voters either by a majority of the members of the Board of Supervisors, or by citizen petition.

The Ethics Commission was created when voters approved Proposition K in 1993. It is charged with overseeing campaign finance issues, regulating lobbyists, creating and advising on ethical guidelines for City officials, investigating and punishing ethical wrongdoing, overseeing whistleblower complaint policies, and other ethics-related functions in City government. The total Ethics Commission budget for fiscal year 2005–06 is $1.2 million, with 11.5 full-time equivalent employees.


SPUR’s Analysis

Proponents say the Charter amendment was
 placed on the ballot to create greater financial independence for the Ethics Commission and to elevate its status, at least regarding funding, to one akin to an independent agency. Additionally, the Civil Grand Jury concluded recently in a report that the Ethics Commission is chronically underfunded. The number of Ethics Commission investigations has increased by 142 percent, from 19 per year to 46 per year, since fiscal year 1999–2000.

Currently, the Ethics Commission is funded like most other City agencies—it submits a proposed budget to the mayor, which the mayor can choose to increase or decrease. The mayor’s proposed City budget as a whole is then forwarded to the Board of Supervisors. The Board can make changes to the budget if it chooses. Once the Board approves a budget as a whole, the mayor must sign it before it becomes law. The proposed Charter Amendment would require the Ethics Commission to submit a budget to the mayor based on a survey of similar agencies in other cities, but the mayor then would be required to transmit this budget unchanged directly to the Board of Supervisors. The Board would retain its ability to amend and adopt the budget. Thus, the measure would alter the role
of the mayor in the Ethics Commission budget process, but not the Board of Supervisors.

Some other cities choose to have some
 level of funding baseline for similar agencies. The justification for the unusual treatment of these agencies is that political officials could use the agency’s budget to either reduce its ability to investigate themselves and their 
allies, or otherwise influence these agencies to accomplish political ends. By being less exposed to political forces in funding decisions, these agencies can be independent enough to create and enforce policies neutrally and effectively.

This Charter amendment also would give the Ethics Commission the ability to decide
to hire outside counsel to represent the Ethics Commission in matters being investigated by the Commission when the matter involves the City Attorney’s Office or one of its employees.


Supporters Claim...

Those who support Proposition C state:

  • The Ethics Commission is a quasi-judicial 
agency that regulates the conduct of our City officials, so their funding should not be subject to the whims (and rewards and retaliation) of those officials
  • The Ethics Commission has a greater workload but less funding than similar agencies and departments in other jurisdictions in California. This measure will ensure funding that is both stable and adequate enough to effectively enforce the City’s ethics laws
  • The Commission needs the authority to determine whether it requires outside counsel when the City Attorney itself has an interest in the case 

Opponents Claim...

Those who oppose Proposition C state:

  • If the goal is to elevate the Ethics Commission 
above politics, then this measure fails. This measure simply shifts political control of the Ethics Commission budget entirely into the hands of the Board of Supervisors. A measure that also curbed the Board’s power would have helped better achieve the purported goal
  • The measure assumes that future Boards of Supervisors will be more in favor of sufficient funding for the Ethics Commission than mayors. With eleven separate political agendas the Board is at least as political, if not more.
  • The Ethics Commission is not quasi-judicial. Judicial bodies, while appointed by political officials, have established systems in place to ensure their members are credentialed, capable, and meet the standards of the profession. A body such as the Ethics Commission, however, has no such standards in place, and is simply a political body appointed by political actors 

SPUR’s Recommendation

SPUR recommends a “No” vote on Proposition C. While this measure appears to be well intended and has a laudable goal, it will not successfully achieve that goal. The idea of insulating the Commission’s budget from political caprice is clearly desirable. But it is unclear why the Board of Supervisors should be expected to show restraint, while the mayor is removed entirely. If it is indeed the case that the Ethics Commission actions are, or could be in the future, influenced by budgetary politics, this measure will simply consolidate that power over the Commission in the Board of Supervisors.