Elected Watchdogs in Scandal-Plagued Cities Show How SF Might Avert Future CorruptionJanuary 14, 2021
This article is part of a project examining ways to use the ballot to hold local government accountable. It was supported by the Solutions Journalism Network’s Renewing Democracy program.
Last May, not long after a scandal at the Department of Public Works rocked San Francisco City Hall, Supervisor Gordon Mar revisited an idea first floated here in 2016: Create a local anti-corruption agency modeled on high-profile efforts such as one New York City launched decades ago.
Mar’s proposal would have amended San Francisco’s City Charter to create an independent, elected watchdog. The office of the public advocate could issue subpoenas, conduct investigations and propose legislation.
His plan needed the approval of the Board of Supervisors to be added to the November 2020 ballot. It fell short by one vote, depriving voters of the chance to weigh in.
Over the past decade, city officials have racked up an impressive rap sheet. FBI probes have uncovered activities leading to charges of fraud, money laundering, pay-to-play contracting schemes and campaign finance violations.
In the latest installment of criminal allegations — just weeks after the local election that might have legislated the watchdog into being — Harlan Kelly, the head of the city’s Public Utilities Commission, was arrested. Prosecutors on Nov. 30 charged him with accepting bribes, including paid vacations, in exchange for providing inside information on city contracts to permit expediter Walter Wong. Two days later, Kelly’s wife, City Administrator Naomi Kelly, who has not been charged with wrongdoing, took a six-week leave of absence under suspicion about her part in the scheme. The San Francisco Chronicle reported Tuesday that she planned to resign.
[See previous coverage: “With Corruption on the Ballot, San Francisco Could Learn Oversight From Other Scandal-Plagued Cities”]
Mar’s hope last spring was that a wave of urgency around good-government reforms would lead colleagues to back a public advocate as one way to help restore trust in city government. But it was far from a new idea. It benefitted from precedents set in cities across the country that were similarly wracked by graft and mismanagement, including Detroit, Chicago and New York.
Why did Mar’s proposal fall short in July? Months after the coronavirus pandemic converted in-person meetings of the Board of Supervisors to virtual hearings, it was harder for him to connect with peers. That week he was counting votes, and by the night of the meeting, he knew he’d lose by one supervisor. The mayor also declined to endorse it.
“It was a lost opportunity,” said David Campos, former supervisor and current chief of staff for District Attorney Chesa Boudin. “If San Franciscans had been given the chance to vote on it, I think they would have supported it.” Campos was the author of a similar ballot measure, Measure H, in 2016. Voters rejected it, with 52% voting no.