Aug. 5 2015 11:25 AM

Power struggle surrounds commissioner nominations

Donna Frye
Photo courtesy of Nyman/Flickr

There's a power struggle going on for control of the city of San Diego's Ethics Commission. The injection, and even just the perception, of politics into the appointment of new board commissioners is a bad seed.

The unfolding drama focuses on three commissioner nominees who have either received Ethics Commission fines (Republican Bill Baber, Democrat Xavier Martinez) or argued in court against the commission on behalf of a politician (Republican Bob Ottilie, defending City Councilmember Marti Emerald in what was an epic battle).

Ethics Commission Executive Director Stacey Fulhorst recently took the highly unusual step of criticizing Ottilie during a meeting with the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board. She said she'd quit if Ottilie was named to her board, and she added that staff and other board members would quit, too.

No one should argue that the commission hasn't done what it was created to do. The independent entity was formed in 2001 following a scandal that saw City Councilmember Valerie Stallings resign after pleading guilty to receiving unreported gifts from former Padres owner John Moores.

Led by Fulhorst, the Ethics Commission has since provided assiduous oversight of campaign disclosures filed by politicians and candidates. Fulhorst does not report to the mayor or the city council. However, councilmembers individually nominate her board members. The mayor picks his nominees from the council's long list. The whole council then votes to confirm the mayor's choices.

Is politics in play? It sure looks like it. A growing chorus of observers and candidates who've run for elected office believe the Ethics Commission focuses too heavily on minor clerical errors on campaign disclosures that should be considered mistakes and not ethical breaches. It's feared that a nominee who's previously been in a dispute with the commission might opine that it'd be prudent to go easier on somebody (or even a political crony) flagged by the commission for campaign violations.

Frederick Kosmos, a Republican lawyer who was nominated for commissioner by City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, is "concerned some of the persons nominated are being put forth for political reasons."

Advocacy groups are calling for change in the nomination process, and believe amending the city's municipal code to allow, for example, a panel of retired judges to somehow choose commission board members would help eliminate political gamesmanship.

Former city councilmember Donna Frye made a similar suggestion years ago.

"I saw this coming," says Frye, now president of Californians Aware. "And now this high level of drama has got to stop. It's causing harm, and it doesn't serve the public interest. Get rid of the mayor and city council participating in the appointment of people who are going to provide enforcement actions on you. That is not the best thing to do."

The Ethics Commission had managed to remain largely apolitical for the first decade of its existence.

(However, two former board chairmen, including Gil Cabrera, currently running for City Attorney, were denied reappointment to the commission allegedly due to "politics.") The municipal code states that the makeup of the seven-member board must include at least one person who has run for office/worked at a high level in a campaign, two lawyers in good standing with the bar, and not more than three members of one political party (meaning at least one member must not be a Republican or a Democrat).

"When this was first set up, the point was to not allow people to use the commission for political vendettas," says Frye. "It couldn't ever look like fines were issued because of political payback. If that becomes a reality, or even a perception, that is a problem."

A change in the way nominees are brought forward can only come from a member of the city council. Councilmember David Alvarez is proud of his four current nominees but is "willing to consider reforms."

The public, emphasizes Frye, needs to let all councilmembers know San Diego doesn't want politics in play within the independent Ethics Commission.

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