Fat Cats and Big Fish: New Rules Won't Starve Those at the Top of the Political Food Chain

There's a San Francisco worldview in which Willie Brown is omnipresent: He sits high above us in a skyscraper, reclining in a black leather chair with a fluffy white cat in his lap, absorbing his cut from all the transactions taking place in his city below.

Alas, this is inaccurate. There is no cat.

The unseen influences of powerful, unelected interests are the moon to San Francisco's tides. City officials' plugs for transparency and regulation smack of the diversionary chitchat of the sort you'd expect at the Dahmer family reunion — rather than talking about Cousin Jeffrey. So, when City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Board President David Chiu last month introduced legislation to beef up disclosure requirements for those wielding influence over City Hall, it was easy to read this as a drive to spotlight the machinations of the city's heaviest hitters: Brown, power broker Rose Pak, permit-expediter Walter Wong, and tech-investor-turned-political-financier Ron Conway.

But both Herrera and Chiu have claimed their proposals aren't aimed at any specific individuals (including the aforementioned group propping up Ed Lee, who thumped them both in the last mayoral election). Whether or not that's the case, there's a lot to like in this proposal. But attempting to counter the aforementioned players with mere legislation — let alone legislation tethered to the dysfunctional Ethics Commission — would be as effective as legislating against the tides.

Saying you work for a community nonprofit is a lot warmer and fuzzier than divulging your ties to a front group for powerful developers — who aren't required to disclose that they're paying you. In San Francisco, the two relationships can be synonymous. Nonprofits in this city are deployed like armies, with their leaders assuming the role of warlords. Meetings can be packed, precincts can be walked, and elected officials can be buttonholed. Per the status quo, supervisors being lobbied on the merits of a proposed project by enthusiastic backers from the nonprofit community may well have no idea if those people have been paid off by developers.

Under Herrera and Chiu's proposed legislation, that would change. Developers with business before the Planning Department will now be required to disclose their donations of $5,000 or more to nonprofits dabbling in city policy. Flushing out the connections between the beneficiaries of major developments and politically active nonprofits is one of the most appealing aspects of this proposed legislation. Expect meetings to be packed, precincts to be walked, and elected officials to be buttonholed in opposition to it. And that's just the part you'll see.

Of course, enhanced disclosure requirements assume voters still maintain the capacity to care about who's paying whom, instead of blithely dismissing it as "politics as usual" — akin to breaking promises regarding running for office or philandering with your secretary before sending her off on a taxpayer-funded sojourn in rehab. That remains to be seen. And while the proposal will force more people to disclose what they're doing, it won't prevent them from doing a number of sketchy things prohibited in other cities or on the statewide level:

• It still won't count as "lobbying" when individuals or groups pour dollars into campaigns cajoling the general public to besiege elected officials with calls or e-mails

• Herrera and Chiu's legislation would require more people to register as "lobbyists" — but lobbyists will still be allowed to make political contributions. If they wish, they can fork over the money right in City Hall

• City commissioners and appointees are still entitled to donate to and fund-raise for the politicians who appointed them. City contractors are barred from making political contributions to the officials who decide upon their contracts — but can fund-raise and bundle far more money for the same officials.

Herrera and Chiu's legislation would mandate a public shitlist of office-holders who fail to file their yearly conflict-of-interest reports with the Ethics Commission. Fair enough — but only city commissioners, department heads, and elected officials file with Ethics. Far more mid-level employees — the folks actually making most civic decisions — have their papers stored in myriad departments scattered throughout the city. Naturally, these aren't available on the Internet.

Even when these and other Ethics forms are placed online, they're often posted as PDFs. That renders them about as searchable as a stack of papers. The only way to discover sweeping trends would be to dig through thousands of forms to find the thread that binds them. On top of everything else, an accurate search would hinge upon Ethics vigilantly checking on the information contained within, or omitted from, the forms it (usually) collects. It doesn't.

In key ways, the city has managed to combine the voluminous amounts of data easily amassed in the 21st century with the searchability of a 19th-century ledger. Understanding the bigger picture requires manually poring through sheaves the size of Russian novels. Only more convoluted.

Rather than killing all the lawyers, per Shakespeare, Herrera and Chiu would just kill their loopholes. Broad exemptions allowing attorneys to avoid registering as lobbyists (and disclosing their activities) would be curtailed. This is for the good. But when one envisions an influential San Francisco attorney/shadow lobbyist, it's hard not to gaze skyward at that semi-imaginary tower.

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