October 08, 2004


SF Ethics: Out of Whack with SF Elections


By SFProgressive.com Editor Savannah Blackwell


Greg Dewar, a political consultant working on Green Party member Susan King's candidacy for District Five supervisor, has discovered that our local campaign laws have failed to keep pace with the new realities of Instant Runoff Voting (IRV).


According to the way a high-ranking staffer at the city’s Ethics Commission is interpreting existing law, candidates won’t get to inform voters by mail of their own second and third choices in the races for district supervisor.


Mostly this would affect District Five (the Haight, Fillmore, Western Addition, Inner Sunset, etc.), where the 22 candidates have joined together in a collaborative to focus on issues. Many have indicated they will soon announcewho they would like to see win -- should their own candidacies not triumph at the polls.


Since voters are expected to rank three different choices for a district representative, these candidates would like to strongly suggest to their supporters whose names to put in each slot.

The value for one candidate of winning the support of another candidate running in the same race will be tested this season; it's part of the universe of new strategies made possible by IRV.

But if ethics staffer Mabel Ng's interpretation of a section of local campaign finance law does indeed hold sway, candidates will not get to fully explore the potential of cooperating with each other.


That’s certainly ironic, because the reduction of negative campaigning and an increase in cooperation was one of the intents of IRV. Moreover, it could be argued that Ng’s extrapolation of the provision stipulating that any contribution a candidates solicits or accepts must be expended only on behalf of (his or her) candidacy unfairly impinges on a candidate’s freedom of expression.


``This is…a message candidates are free to advocate in person, the press, and at community meetings – but it is unclear [whether] they can say the very same thing to voters in a paid political announcement, which seems strange,” Dewar, who runs Dewar & Associates out of Los Angeles, wrote in an Oct. 5 letter to Ng. Dewar requested an official reading of the law and complained that Ng was relying on a “very narrow” interpretation.


King has endorsed fellow greens Ross Mirkarimi and Lisa Feldstein. And Dewar wanted to see if it would be all right for King to mention the two in a mail piece put out by the King campaign.

So he called up Ng. She’s the same city official, by the way, who certainly took a lenient look at the law when she sided with former director Ginny Vida in trying to force staffers to destroy an email from the law office of Mayor Gavin Newsom’s campaign treasurer revealing what could be viewed as a plan to break the law.


Ng figured that since King’s campaign coffers would be used for the mailer, no other candidate could benefit from it. Hence, King could not mention the names of any other candidates in the piece. Ng was tough about her take, according to Dewar, informing him that he would be "exposing the campaign to liability" if he didn’t heed her advice. (I called Ng for comment. She’s out of the office until Oct. 11.)


Dewar said he found it unfortunate that San Francisco’s campaign laws have not been made to jibe with the new IRV system.


``It’s disempowering especially to a candidate who is not a frontrunner because it denies them the opportunity to tell their voters directly what they can do to better the chances of getting a representative who sees eye-to-eye with their candidate,” Dewar told the SFProgressive.

Read Dewar’s take on this unfortunate mess.


10/12/04 UPDATE: John St. Croix, the Ethics Commission's Executive Director, called today and said that the agency is going to try and figure out a way for supervisorial candidates to be able to list their personal recommendations for voters' number two and number three choices on the ballot in campaign mail. He called staffer Ng's interpretation appropriate "on first blush," but acknowledged that the ruling would limit the potential of candidate cooperation in the IRV process. The commission is expected to discuss the matter at its Oct. 18 meeting, and a ruling should be issued by the next day.


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