New Watchdog Overseeing ‘Pay to Play’ Politics in San Francisco

LeeAnn Pelham, newly appointed to lead the San Francisco Ethics Commission, addresses commissioners. (Screen shot from sfgovtv.org)

The San Francisco agency tasked with enforcing the city’s lobbying and campaign contribution laws has a new leader — a woman who has worked in local government ethics for two decades.

On Monday night, weeks after the agency oversaw some of the most expensive campaigns in San Francisco history, commissioners voted unanimously to appoint LeeAnn Pelham as the next executive director of the agency.

Her appointment comes months after the San Francisco Ethics Commission’s last executive director, John St. Croix, resigned following criticism by at least one of the agency’s commissioners that he did a bad job and avoided conflict.

The ethics commission publishes a campaign finance database that contains detailed information about political donors and candidates.

While it’s tasked with regulating money in politics, it may be more well-known for voting to back the case that former sheriff Ross Mirkarimi committed official misconduct in connection with an incident when he bruised his wife’s arm in December 2011.

More recently, members of the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury interviewed ethics commission staff and reviewed the agency’s policies as part of an investigative review of the city’s Whistleblower Protection Ordinance, which concluded that the law “does not fully ‘protect’ city officers and employees from retaliation for filing a complaint.” In early August, about three months after the release of that report, St. Croix formally responded to the civil grand jury’s recommendations.

St. Croix’s resignation in late August prompted a national search attracting dozens of candidates, leading to this week’s appointment. In fact, leaders of the commission, which trumpets transparency and openness, kept its choice secret until Monday’s meeting.

Pelham told the commission Monday night that the agency needs to do a better job of enforcing the city’s ethics laws and get more aggressive about pushing forward new policies that could strengthen them.

With the infusion of money into politics accelerating nationwide, Pelham says San Francisco has to play a key role in making sure the public knows where campaign contributions are coming from.

“I think there’s a lot of important and really exciting work in the world of ethics and campaign finance and lobbying being done and being led at the local level,” Pelham said in an interview. “The voters’ mandate for accountable and transparent government is something both they and the board are looking to really advance and to move the work of this commission to the next level.”

Pelham spent a decade running the Los Angeles Ethics Commission after working as a staff member at the agency for nine years.

Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who is now the president of the L.A. commission, worked with Pelham years ago.

“She’s no shrinking violet,” Levinson said in an interview. “She’s going to do what she thinks is right. She’ll listen to the stakeholders, the commissioners, members of the reform community and the regulated community. I don’t think she’s going to come in there with a ‘it’s my way or the highway,’ but I do think she knows how to run an agency.”

Management style may be one of the things that led to St. Croix’s resignation.

“The former executive director who had been there for many years, in my opinion and in the opinion of other commissioners and the public at large, did not do a very good job,” said Peter Keane, a member of the commission, also in an interview.

St. Croix was too concerned with less important aspects of bureaucracy, Keane said.

Pelham will do a vigorous job of policing the ethics of city government, he said. “In order to do that, the new executive director is going to really have to set the tone and change the culture,” Keane said.

That culture change is all the more important as campaigns have become increasingly expensive.

“The present domination of money within San Francisco’s political system, where there’s no question the name of the game is ‘pay to play,’ that public scrutiny is something that is going to call for a lot of activity in the future,” Keane said.

The commission’s president, Paul Renne, disagrees with Keane. He said at the time that St. Croix had done a good job in a tough situation.

Nevertheless both commissioners agree that with more money being poured into political campaigns, a strong enforcer is needed for the agency.

St. Croix never publicly disclosed why he left, and has not responded to criticism since stepping down.

Renne said in an interview last week that he wants beefed-up enforcement. He said new ideas on how to make the city’s campaign disclosure requirements more strict is key in convincing the public that “there is not corruption in city government.”

Pelham most recently served as the director of the ethics and corporate governance office at the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

She starts her new job on Jan. 4. Her salary will be $174,850 a year.

New Watchdog Overseeing ‘Pay to Play’ Politics in San Francisco 26 September,2016Ted Goldberg

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Ted Goldberg

Ted Goldberg is the morning editor for KQED News. His beat areas include San Francisco politics, the city's fire department and the Bay Area's refineries.

Prior to joining KQED in 2014, Ted worked at CBS News and WCBS AM in New York and Bay City News and KCBS Radio in San Francisco. He graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1998.

You can follow him at @TedrickG and reach him on email at tgoldberg@kqed.org

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