Amid the mayoral mayhem Monday, not a single person showed up, save for a lone CityBeat reporter, to watch as San Diego's Ethics Commission selected 16 (out of a pool of 24) candidate and ballot-measure committees from the 2004 election cycle for audit-an ambitious undertaking given that the commission conducted only three audits from the previous election cycle. A fourth audit of City Councilmember Ralph Inzunza was put on hold after he was indicted for allegedly taking campaign contributions from strip-club owners in exchange for agreeing to revisit the city's no-touching-at-strip-clubs law.
Committees chosen in the Monday drawing included some biggies: those representing Mayor Dick Murphy, county Supervisor Ron Roberts, former Port Commissioner Peter Q. Davis, City Attorney Mike Aguirre, City Councilmember Donna Frye's write-in campaign and the committee that attempted to quash the strong-mayor initiative.
Earlier that day, the Ethics Commission was touted by out-going Mayor Dick Murphy as one of the accomplishments of his four-plus year tenure. What Murphy didn't mention is that nearly everyone running for mayor and City Council in 2000 felt it was high time for the to city establish an ethics commission. At that point, Los Angeles had San Diego beat by a decade and San Francisco had been battling municipal rule-breakers for four years. City Hall watchdogs such as Mel Shapiro now wonder if the city would be in the mess it's in if there'd been someone minding the store sooner.
Unlike those in L.A. and San Francisco, the Ethics Commission here doesn't draw much publicity. All its annual reports and investigative findings are available on its website, but its staff doesn't send out press releases or gather the media to announce the conclusion of a successful investigation. For that reason, it's been hard to gauge what impact the agency has had on how the city's public officials go about their business, especially when it comes to navigating all those pesky campaign-finance and financial-disclosure rules. Largely, the commission's role has been behind-the-scenes, educating public officials on some of the more technical aspects of ethics law.
“Just because an organization doesn't shoot from the hip and make a scene doesn't mean they aren't effective,” said accountant April Boling, who served as treasurer on four of the committees selected Monday for audit. “Much of their charge is to educate the regulated community. People need to understand the law and they need to follow it.”
In theory, the audit of the 16 2004 campaign committees will show how effective those education efforts have been. But slightly more telling of the sort of stick the Ethics Commission carries involves a minor flap last month over letters of recommendation the commission's executive director, Stacey Fulhorst, and a couple of her cohorts wrote on behalf of a candidate for City Clerk.
In late March, Fulhorst, Commissioner Dorothy Leonard and Ethics Commission lawyer Cristie McGuire sent letters to members of the City Council strongly recommending Joyce Lane-currently second in command at the City Clerk's office-to head that office. Current City Clerk Charles Abdelnour is retiring in June.
While there's nothing unethical about Ethics Commission employees and commissioners recommending job candidates-they are, however, forbidden from endorsing political candidates-some City Council members and City Hall staffers felt a little uncomfortable receiving a letter from Fulhorst, on Ethics Commission stationary, recommending they take certain action.
“It puts you in a difficult situation,” said City Councilmember Donna Frye, whose 2002 campaign was the first campaign to be audited by the ethics panel. “People who are going to be investigating you and potentially fining you... making recommendations about people that should be appointed to a city office-it's a bit uncomfortable.”
City Councilmember Scott Peters, whose 2004 campaign was selected for audit, put it more bluntly. “Stacey doesn't know how scared people are of the Ethics Commission,” he said. “I think she doesn't realize when the Ethics Commission letterhead comes in, people think, What if I go against this? Will I get in trouble?
“I think Stacey's extremely fair,” Peters added. “I just don't think she needs to weigh in on civil-service appointments because she doesn't appreciate how people are scared of her title.”
Fulhorst was amused by Peters' comment, saying it's a conversation she's had with him before.
“The Ethics Commission is not here to catch somebody on some minor, innocent, isolated technicality,” she said. “I hope the only people who truly fear the Ethics Commission are the people who legitimately are out there doing things they shouldn't be doing.”
As far as the letter of recommendation and the weight it might carry, “I would be very disappointed if the council members didn't perceive that it was simply a professional courtesy for someone that I've worked very closely with,” she said, pointing out that in many other cities, the ethics commission and city clerk are considered the same department; ethics commission investigations depend on documents filed with the city clerk.
As for those 16 audits, Fulhorst said they'll take roughly a year to complete, even though the Ethics Commission has only one investigator to pore through all the necessary documents. But the large-scale audit is necessary.
“If you only audit a small fraction of the committees, you're not really serving the public interest,” she said. “If you file your tax return and you think there's going to be a 75-percent chance you're going to be audited, you're going to be pretty careful about that tax return. It just encourages more meticulous compliance. So we're hoping that that's what we're going to start seeing.”