Point 1: City employee unions contend the original intent of the lobbyist registration ordinance was to exclude unions from complying.
Point 1 refuted: The original law makes no mention of excluding unions from coverage. The original law does include an exemption that allows unions not to disclose their contacts with city officials, if those contacts involve collective bargaining. Now why would the supervisors exclude a portion of union activity at City Hall from reporting requirements, unless they intended union officials to disclose the remainder of their lobbying activity?
Point 2: Unions claim that the state law governing union-employer relations, the Meyers Milias Brown Act, precludes local jurisdictions from regulating the lobbying activities of labor organizations.
Point 2 really refuted: "There is clearly nothing in Meyers Milias Brown that would exclude them from reporting their lobbying activities," says John Holtzman of the City Attorney's Office, who is that office's expert on labor law.
So if labor's cover story on lobbyist reporting is wholly insupportable, what's the real reason that city unions refuse to play by the lobbying rules?
It's simple: Labor unions want special rights, and in San Francisco they've amassed the stroke to grab them. The unions want an unlevel playing field, where all the media and public attention is focused on corporate-sector special interests, as union officials go about cutting deal after deal in violation of the public interest -- all while characterizing themselves as strugglers for social justice against the corporate greedheads.
Though it may seem otherwise, I'm actually not all that mad at the unions. They are just fulfilling their existential mandate to win as much privilege and power as possible. It's what special interests do. If I were a member of a special interest, and my City Hall representative all of a sudden went soft and ethical on me when he could be hard and effective, I'd fire the SOB.
Asking labor to voluntarily do the right thing is like asking our hypothetical bank robber to suddenly undergo a conversion and return the money to the bank.
It ain't gonna happen. And expecting or wanting it and screaming "Should! Should! Should!" is naive.
Advanced societies have cops to chase the robbers. The cops step in when self-interest runs roughly over the public interest and slap on the cuffs.
There's a problem in San Francisco, though: The city's ethics cops, like the cops in the bank-robber analogy, are looking the other way. And they haven't used any handcuffs for decades now.
If they wanted to bust the unions, San Francisco's ethics cops -- City Attorney Louise Renne and the Ethics Commission and its staff -- could have an easy and fun time of it. Unions are breaking the law that regulates lobbyists so openly the Keystone Kops could probably make the case.
Here's how Renne and/or the Ethics Commission could do it, individually or in concert: They could send some investigators to sit outside the offices of the mayor, a few supervisors, and a few department decision-makers, and the investigators could count the union officials who came and went. The investigators could then figuratively or literally badge the relevant city officials and ask: So whadidya talk about?
If they talked about most anything legislative or policy-connected 25 times in less than two months, the city attorney and the Ethics Commission would have themselves a civil enforcement action, and perhaps even some fine money to put into the city budget.
There are less obtrusive ways to investigate union lobbying. An investigator could read the last year or two of agendas for Board of Supervisors meetings, pick out all the union-related items, and then ask each of the supervisors if he or she spoke with union officials about them. If a supe or two had memory problems, the investigator could use the officials' own appointment calendars to help refresh recollection.
At least, that's what I'd do if I had a badge and jurisdiction over union lobbying at City Hall.
But I don't.
The folks with the literal and figura-tive badges are Renne and the Ethics Commission.
Renne, who has been supported by powerful city unions going back to her days on the Board of Supervisors 20 years ago, isn't particularly interested in suing those unions, and fining them, and possibly even banning them from lobbying altogether. It's that simple: She's not interested in enforcing the law.
But you don't have to believe me when I say that; she says it herself.
Here's what our stalwart city attorney had to say when asked why she didn't take on the unions that are lobbying in fairly evident contravention to the law she is elected to enforce: "Right now I don't have any evidence [illegal union lobbying] is a major problem. This is not apparently a major kind of problem."
This she said, even though she acknowledges she has never looked into whether the unions are lobbying. So, I asked, why not investigate and find out --- one way or the other?
It is, she said, the Ethics Commission's job to investigate such infractions. "They are the first line of defense," said the city's top civil law enforcer.