making local government more ethical

San Diego: More Tension Between EC and Council

The relationship between San Diego's council and ethics commission continues to prove unhealthy. It shows how wrong it is for elected officials to appoint and control the body that oversees their conduct.

According to an article in today's Union-Tribune, a long-term EC investigation has led to an accusation that a council member did not report campaign expenses until eight months after they were incurred. That should be the central story, but it's not.

The council member's attorney insists that the EC rejected his request to discuss a settlement because of what he said in council hearings on giving the EC more powers. According to another Union-Tribune article, what the attorney said is, “The commission staff at this time, as a group, is driven more by accumulating unfettered power, bullying witnesses and prevailing at all costs. They have conducted fishing expeditions long after they've determined no real violation has occurred.”

According to a Union-Tribune news blog in August, the council member, before recusing herself on a vote concerning the EC, said, "It's my hope the Ethics Commission will bring this fishing expedition to an end."

From this, it sounds as if the attorney was, indeed, speaking for his client. This same council member had tried to put one of her campaign workers on the EC, leading to even more acrimony.

In September, according to another Union-Tribune article, the council's rules committee voted down proposals to give the EC subpoena power and to make it illegal for people to knowingly lie or provide false documents to the EC. Three of the five committee members have been fined a total of $30,000 by the EC. It was at this hearing that the council member's attorney tried to make the EC look power hungry and irresponsible.

The EC's executive director said after this decision that the council committee “essentially decided today that it is acceptable in the city of San Diego for people to choose not to cooperate with an Ethics Commission investigation and also that it is acceptable that there are no consequences if people knowingly provide false evidence."

Subpoena power is important for any body charged with investigating possible wrongdoing. Without it, it is difficult to do an adequate job. An EC without subpoena power is often forced to dismiss cases, and it is far more difficult to enter into settlements, because respondents can rely on their colleagues and subordinates not to cooperate with an EC investigation, especially in an environment hostile to the EC.

The San Diego ethics program is much too politicized. One reason is that the EC was created by citizen initiative. The council has never really accepted it. I've written more about San Diego's problems in earlier blog posts:

The EC Appointment Process
The Tension Between Elected Officials and ECs
An Unappreciative Council

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics
[email protected]