After so many whiffs, should ethics commission go?

Joshua Barousse is a respected staffer on the 18th floor of San Jose City Hall. He works now for Councilwoman Sylvia Arenas. There’s a modest irony there: Last year, Barousse lost to Arenas in the primary contest to represent San Jose’s Evergreen district.

It’s what he did with his leftover campaign money that caused him a problem. The story offers a lesson to the rest of us as well. It shows how much money and effort we waste to assume the appearance of clean government in San Jose — when a simple admonition might serve.

Barousse gave $2,841 to “Fast Forward Silicon Valley,’’ a campaign committee based in Milpitas but active in other cities as well. The committee in turn gave $100 contributions to three labor-friendly San Jose council candidates — Sergio Jimenez,  Helen Chapman, and Arenas.

Politics as usual, right? I can sense your shrug. Barousse said he consulted with a couple of campaign folks who didn’t think it was a violation. It happens regularly at the state level.

Under San Jose’s laws, however, he had a problem, one that some folks liken to money-laundering. It led to an ethics complaint against him at City Hall by a political opponent of the Fast Forward committee.

Unfortunately for the taxpayers, it cost the public more than $8,600 to investigate the matter. The money went to Hanson Bridgett, a San Francisco law firm that advertises itself on San Francisco Giants game broadcasts as “lawyers you’ll like.’’

“It was a pretty hefty bill,’’ says Barousse, who wound up paying a $500 fine. He eventually unwound all the contributions, something he says he would have done if someone at City Hall had given him a polite heads-up. He wanted to do the right thing.

Which brings me to my point: Over its history, the San Jose Ethics Commission, which is now called the Board of Fair Campaign and Political Practices — a mouthful — has attracted complaints crafted for political purposes.

So regular is this practice that I call the board the “Flypaper Commission.’’ By filing a complaint with the commission, a campaign can cast an opponent in an unfavorable light. “Candidate X under investigation in ethics complaint,’’ the headline reads. The complaints are supposed to be kept confidential while the lawyers look it over, but someone always leaks it.

And just like flypaper, the commission needs to be taken down for reasons of public health. The city will do just fine without the thrashing and spending that the commission inspires.

As I look back over the history, I’m hard put to find a case where one of it decisions genuinely improved the quality of political life in our city.

The litany is unsettling: In late 2008, for example, an anonymous complaint accused ex-Mayor Tom McEnery of failing to report meetings with top city officials over the San Pedro Square project.

After the commission’s lawyers found McEnery had made a sincere effort to comply with the law, the commission dismissed the complaint. But the ex-mayor was smeared in the meantime.

Then, in 2015, the commission fined then-Councilman Manh Nguyen $10,000 for late campaign filings, a decision that  unleashed a blistering and expensive controversy.

Adrian Gonzales, the chair of the board 

After learning that 20 candidates had committed the same offense — and agreeing to spend $30,000 to have attorneys investigate — the commission refused to reverse Nguyen’s fine. When Nguyen threatened to sue San Jose, the city attorney’s office essentially abandoned the fine.

The chair of the Flypaper Commission, Adrian Gonzales, acknowledges that some campaigns attempt to game the system. He says the commissioners are looking at recommendations that would reform the practice. “You don’t need to demolish the house,’’ he told me. “You just need to fix the door.’’

I’m afraid I can’t agree. There’s one simple answer for this. End the Flypaper Commission once and for all. Thank its members in a public ceremony and send them home. If we have to, change the law and rely on the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission. We’ll all be better for it.