Tomorrow is Friday the 13th, and the date marks an anniversary that some political insiders say may signify bad news for transparency at San Diego’s city hall. It was one year ago tomorrow that the City’s Ethics Commission issued its most recent official conflict-of-interest advice letter to a city official. The historic missive went to Democratic city councilman David Alvarez regarding how he should conduct himself on the council in light of some property he owned in the Dells Imperial district in Southeast San Diego. Alvarez had written to inquire whether his real estate would bar him from voting on a proposed redevelopment plan for the area. The short answer: “You may not, as a general rule, participate” in the vote, but if “the decision will impact your property interests in substantially the same manner that it impacts the ‘public generally,’” then “you may lawfully participate in the decision.”
Since that day last April, no one at the City has seen a need to ask Ethics Commission staffers for formal advice regarding potential conflicts of interest, confirms executive director Stacey Fulhorst. There was also a relative paucity of requests in 2010, with only 3 letters being issued, and just 2 in 2009. In 2008, a total of 8 letters went out, with titles including “Disqualification from Municipal Decisions Involving Spouse,” “Disqualification from Municipal Decision Based on Prior Employment,” and “Transferring Funds in 2004 Committee to 2008 Committee.”
In 2007, 7 letters were issued; and in 2006 there were 11. Peak demand came in 2003 and 2004, when 12 letters were dispatched each year. Fulhorst says that these days more requests for “informal” advice are being made and responded to, which reduces the need for official letters. There is no record kept of the informal queries, she explains.