Where's the Fire? Union's Chron Ad, Campaign Stir Accusations of Improper Lobbying.

Categories: Government

Whether an orchestrated campaign to spur the general public to call or write their city councilmen is benevolent or nefarious depends upon the cause at hand. But to argue that such a campaign doesn't constitute "lobbying" is to take up a losing battle with the good folks at Merriam-Webster.

The ad to the right appeared Thursday on the San Francisco Chronicle's Web page; clicking on it took one to a site called "Save Our Neighborhood Firehouses." You won't find out who wants you to save the firehouses by calling your supervisor anywhere on the site, but if you dial the number provided, the firefighter union picks up.

Clearly, the firefighter union is engaged in a direct lobbying pitch. And yet, they are not listed among the city's registered lobbyists (though we've been promised that status will soon change -- and we'll get to that).

In fact, not a single union registered with the city in all of 2008 as engaging in lobbying activity. This presents two scenarios: Unions have not engaged in any lobbying whatsoever -- or are simply not reporting it. Current and former members of the Ethics Commission SF Weekly spoke with are inclined to believe the latter.

This is a timely incident, as the Commission meets Monday to discuss what changes, if any, to make to its lobbyist ordinance. And, in recent weeks, a lengthy open letter sent to the Commission by five of its former longtime members contained this eerily prescient passage:

While most lobbying laws exclude reporting on negotiation of collective bargaining agreements, this exclusion does not extend to such activities as lobbying by the firefighters over closing fire stations, or city workers over cuts to the budget. This is an issue that has repeatedly come before the commission, been the subject of news articles faulting the Commission for its record, and several times resulted in the Commission's educational outreach to unions but with no success.
"Everyone knows that unions lobby. It's done among friends ... behind the scenes," says Joe Lynn, a former Ethics Commissioner and the principal author of the aforementioned letter. Unless a union registers with the city as a lobbyist, then, "If it's not directly about wages and hours, it's not permissible lobbying." Unions get around this, Lynn continued, by arguing that everything they're lobbying about deals with wages and hours -- even if to do so requires long chains of interrelated actions that sound like descriptions of Chaos Theory. Lynn referred to the Chronicle ad as "a smoking gun."

"Technically, [Ethics] should be nailing them," Lynn said of the unions. "But staff doesn't want to go against the unions because there's going to be pushback." 

After eyeballing the firefighter union's ad, John St. Croix, the Ethics Commission's executive director, said "I think this kind of activity should be registered as lobbying. And I'll bet the unions disagree."

Well, he was right -- and wrong.

When Tom O'Connor, the union's treasurer, was queried about the ad campaign, he initially denied it to be lobbying. He characterized it as "advocating for the public good." Yet, a little over an hour later, he called back and said he was mistaken -- a union lawyer told him it is "grass-roots lobbying" and O'Connor promised the union would register Friday, well within the allotted window of time. This, he said, was the plan all along. While O'Connor recalled registering before, several former city officials told SF Weekly that they couldn't recall any union registering as a lobbyist -- ever.

When told of the union's plan to file, Lynn laughed and said, "They should be commended on their sense of public citizenship."

Then he added, "Now I'd love if they'd disclose what other activities they're engaged in."

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