Ethics Commission Must Beg Mayor to Enforce Sunshine Ordinance

Categories: Government
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When it comes to getting the Sunshine Ordinance enforced, you might as well be walking on the sun...
Last night, after 18 prior rejections, the Ethics Commission finally deigned to hold a hearing of a case referred its way by the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force.

For those scoring at home, the task force is now one-for-19 when it comes to actually having the Sunshine Ordinance enforced. Yet that may be saying too much: Yesterday's hearing revealed larger problems. It exposed gaping loopholes in the ordinance resulting in a "solution" in which egregious violations of the law result in a memo being sent to the mayor -- who may or may not do a damn thing.

The incident that sparked last night's hearing was a loud, objectionable, and -- let us assure you -- unpleasant-to-watch exchange at a Library Commission meeting, of all things. You're not supposed to yell at the library. And, it turns out, you're not supposed to yell at Library Commission meetings either -- especially when you're the president of the board.



Here are the details of the offense in as concise a manner as we can do. At a 2009 meeting, speaker Sue Cauthen brought up a point tangentially related to the North Beach library -- but not related to the forthcoming very specific agenda item about the library's design on that night's agenda -- during general comments. She was told to stop speaking by commission president Jewelle Gomez. When Cauthen tried to explain the situation, Gomez began upbraiding her, raising her voice to scream "Sit down!" Gomez then adopted a condescending sing-song tone, repeating "Please sit down, please sit down, please sit down." Cauthen sat down.

You can hear this uncomfortable exchange just after the 20-minute mark of the above video, a recording of last night's Ethics Commission meeting commissioned by Larry Bush

For a commission president to shout down a speaker is about as clear a violation of the Sunshine Ordinance as you can get. But here's where things get tricky. Under the terms of ordinance, the Ethics Commission is entitled to initiate enforcement only against an "elected official, department head, or other managerial city employee." Gomez, a volunteer appointee of erstwhile Mayor Gavin Newsom, is obviously none of those.

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Conduct unbecoming for a commission president...
The suggestion put forth by Ethics' legal staff was to send a memo to Mayor Ed Lee urging he punish Gomez. This was unanimously approved by the commission, thus exposing a fantastic weakness in the law.

Does it make sense that a city official found to have egregiously violated the law is then referred to back to the very person who appointed her, with no requirement that any punishment take place at all? Mayor Lee may well remove Gomez from office, or he may use the Ethics Commission's letter to kindle a fire in his office and cook a can of baked beans. It's up to him. (Our guess is that Gomez will resign.)

Considering Gomez is a Newsom appointment and the Library Commission isn't one of the city's particularly big-money bodies, it's unclear how much effort Lee will expend on her behalf. But the ruling would have been the same, even if Gomez was Lee's appointment and, perhaps, very good friend on an influential commission.

On a side note, the members of the Ethics Commission were far more appalled that Gomez was incredibly rude than they seemed to be about her obvious violation of the Sunshine Ordinance. Had Gomez been nice about shutting up Cauthen, this hearing would not have taken place. Furthermore, Ethics may not have opted to write the mayor and urge Gomez be sacked if the Library Commissioner hadn't arrogantly defended her actions, claiming she had been "provoked" into behaving like an audience member on The Jerry Springer Show. For her to adopt this tack, repeatedly, after everyone in the room winced while watching video of her berate a frail, elderly woman showed astounding tone-deafness.

The upshot of the night, however, is that even when the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force wins, it also loses. The Ethics Commission thought so little of it that it systematically rejected 18 consecutive referrals. Now, on No. 19, Ethics decided it had no enforcing authority and has to ask the mayor to do something. 

That such a stunningly large loophole could be present in a decades-old law makes it clear that the city never took the Sunshine Ordinance seriously. It's yet another San Francisco law political leaders felt was far more important to pass than enforce. We have a Sunshine Ordinance Task Force so we can say we have one, not to enforce the Sunshine Ordinance.

City officials can continue to violate the Sunshine Ordinance with impunity. Taking a lesson from Gomez, however, they'll just have to be nice about it.

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