Ethics Commission Under Microscope
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February 12, 2010 – What's the point of an ethics commission if it isn't allowed to hold elected officials accountable? We put the head of the commission on the record.
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JOANNE FARYON (Host): The watchdog agency created to keep an eye on campaign and lobbying laws at city hall was under the microscope this week. Questions were raised about the conduct of the City of San Diego's Ethics Commission after it levied fines against elected officials. We put San Diego attorney Bob Ottilie on the record about his experience with the commission. Ottilie is also Councilwoman Marti Emerald's attorney, one of the officials fined. BOB OTTILIE (Attorney): You know 30 years ago we didn't have a citizens review board to review police actions. And part of what we learned in the community is that if we have effective policing it has to be community policing – people have to like the police. And when I first came to town 31 years ago, you'd go into an ethnic community, low-income community, or beach community where the crime takes place generally and you'd find that hardly anybody liked the police because they felt they were being mistreated by the police. So what we've done is try to improve that because we realized that the victims of crime, the witnesses of crime, the people that are going to help you solve crime, have to like you if they're going to work with you. And we're starting to see the same problems with the ethics commission. It’s been weakened because they have alienated themselves from most of the people that they work with or interact with and that's what is hurting our ethics commission most. FARYON: We also spoke to Stacey Fulhorst, Executive Director of the San Diego Ethics Commission. Here's what she had to say about how ethics commission investigators conduct themselves during investigations. STACEY FULHORST (San Diego Ethics Commission): I think it's fair to say that ethics commission investigators are in a uniquely difficult position as investigators in that obviously the public expects the commission investigators to be thorough, to be diligent and to be willing to ask tough questions that need to be asked in order to gather the appropriate facts. Having said that of course, they are in a politically charged environment with people who are extremely sensitive to being even under investigation let alone to the potential outcome. The vast majority of people simply make mistakes and that is why we place education first but it is undeniable that enforcement and the levying of fines serve a very important purpose in terms of deterrents. If it is common knowledge amongst people that engage in lobbying and campaign activities in San Diego – that certain type of violations will result in a hefty fine. That serves a very important purpose. FARYON: J.W., the allegations that arose this week really had to do with bullying be commission investigators. Was this clash inevitable given the role of the commission? J.W. AUGUST (10 News): I think so. There comes a time when… I remember when the commission was formed, we needed the commission then, we need the commission now. There's no doubt about that. That was a bad time when Mayor Murphy formed the commission. But first for honesty’s sake, I did work with Marti Emerald for many years and Bob Ottilie is my attorney. But I've also respected the work of the ethics commission since day one because I think they do a good job for the most part. But Miss Emerald raises some issues that we need to be thinking about. And I salute her for being the only sitting councilperson ever to say hey, we need to stop and take a look at this. FARYON: She wants a hearing. This is the first councilmember to actually demand a hearing. AUGUST: Right. I think what you’ve got is good people on both sides, but I think the system itself is broken and they need to address some issues with the structure of the ethics commission. How they fund it, who picks the commissioners, all those need to be looked at again now. FARYON: Let’s talk about that. Who picks these commissioners and who funds these commissioners? City Hall. SCOTT LEWIS (voiceofsandiego.org): Well the mayor and yeah, the city council. And so yeah, that’s an issue that we have to evaluate. I think that we have to decide though are these problems or concerns or discomfort with the commission in the way it’s doing its job. Or are they discomfort with the actual laws that the city council itself passed. These are very complex campaign finance and disclosure laws. Each of them has a very sincere purpose behind them, but they're difficult to enforce. And if we have a body to enforce them, it’s going to necessarily cause these kinds of conflicts. And I think that the fact that Ottilie says that they’ve alienated themselves from the rest of the city hall, well that’s exactly what an entity like this is going to do. It’s going to rub them raw. Now, should we reevaluate those laws? Are they too complex for people to even consider running for office without somebody like Ottilie to represent them? And I think that’s an issue we have to deal with because they are extremely complex. I would think twice, a lot of people would think twice about ever getting into a race like that just because they're so hard. But they are the laws and if you have an enforcement agency, then I think you have to support their efforts. FARYON: This city council though has also refused to grant the panel additional subpoena power, or to make it illegal to lie to the commission staff. So is this a city council that really wants this kind of commission, which believes in this kind of commission enough so that it’s going to back it. LEWIS: No question city council has become hostile to the ethics commission. That they believe that they’re out of line, that they’ve gone too far, and that this is their way of punishing them whether it’s through their budget or whatnot. Now the question is this is also an ethics commission that’s disproportionately low funded compared to its peers around the state and I think that, again, you don’t want these laws then come up with some other laws. But otherwise this is the responsibility that you have with it. That doesn’t mean that they couldn’t perhaps reevaluate how they approach their targets in their investigation. But also, when you underfund an investigative unit like that they’re going to have to do things like lotteries and random audits that Miss Emerald is uncomfortable with just because they have no other way to comprehensively do all of them right now. FARYON: J.W., do we have to reevaluate how they’re appointed or who appoints them? Should we take that out of the hands of city council? AUGUST: Absolutely. Donna Frye, Carl DeMaio had a great idea. Why not get the presiding judge and two other judges pick the commission? Why not rebuild instead of this patchwork of laws that have grown up over time that the ethics commission has had to enforce? Let’s look at ground zero, rebuild a structure, and have a bright line so we know exactly what the rules are. They’re understandable even for maybe if I'm going to run. I wouldn’t run for office now, I’d be afraid because I’d have to hire a couple attorneys and I couldn’t afford to do it. Because I don't know where I’d be stumbling around. Probably one of the biggest problems is semantics. If the ethics commission issues a report you’re therefore unethical, but one could be a very simple thing. Others, people are hiding money. They are needed because there are people who try to take advantage of the system. But not all ethics commissions involve unethical people. FARYON: We’ll have to leave it there. Thank you J.W., managing editor of 10 News, and Scott Lewis, CEO of voiceofsandiego.org.