High stakes of stimulus spending demands critical accountability

By Dennis Herrera
[Originally published in the San Francisco Examiner, March 30, 2009]

For those of us in public life who see our role as advancing the common good — who share President Abraham Lincoln’s conviction that “government is the coming together of people to do for one another collectively what they could not do as well or at all privately” — the eyes of history are about to be upon us.

Make no mistake about it: Hanging in the balance with the $787 billion federal economic stimulus package President Barack Obama signed into law last month isn’t solely whether our economy will emerge from its deep recession. At stake, too, is whether we’re right. We may firmly believe that government can be a force for progress, honestly, accountably and competently.

But it’s now time for us to put up or shut up.

That was part of my motivation in appointing the Stimulus Spending Task Force, which I announced last week. Comprising six talented and dedicated public servants from within my office, the team combines expertise from virtually every legal practice area that involves federal stimulus spending: contracts and grants; ethics and open government; construction and public works; federal funding compliance; and fraud investigations and litigation.

I’ve charged this task force with a five-part mission intended to endure through the program’s life cycle: guarantee transparency; assure stringent oversight; streamline city processes where possible; coordinate compliance efforts; and ruthlessly investigate and pursue waste, fraud or abuse wherever it exists, whether by public employees or private contractors. That’s the official mission.

The unofficial mission is somewhat shorter: work closely with the vast majority of city clients and contractors who take their responsibilities seriously; ride herd on any who do not; and if anyone complains, have them talk to me.

A number of cities and states have appointed “stimulus czars” and established new offices to manage oversight of spending.  While it’s hard to argue with taking oversight seriously, the irony of creating new bureaucracies has not been lost on critics.  Michigan, for example, budgeted $2 million for a four-person office to manage federal stimulus funding it has yet to receive. The real estate developer tapped to serve as stimulus czar in Massachusetts recently came under fire for his enhanced public pension benefits. And, Florida’s stimulus czar has already been criticized for not meeting with state legislative leaders.

I’m certainly not suggesting San Francisco’s stimulus spending will be without criticism. But because the City Charter already requires the city attorney to serve as legal counsel to all city departments, my office is uniquely positioned to coordinate, streamline and scrutinize The City’s legal compliance efforts, without the need to invent a costly new bureaucracy.

Let’s face it, criticism is good and healthy when it involves vigorously debating our spending priorities. But it’s not healthy if it involves charges of corruption and wastefulness. The Stimulus Spending Task Force intends to make sure San Francisco avoids the latter, and leaves the former to citizens and policymakers.

As Obama said, all of us in public life must prove to the American people that their trust in government is not misplaced. Our paramount duty as a city is to ensure that this unprecedented level of federal funding is invested honestly and in ways that deliver real value to our communities and children, who are ultimately on the hook to pay this money back.

For our economy and for our children, it’s up to us to show that our government really can be a force for progress, honestly, accountably and competently. We can not tolerate waste, fraud or abuse. And may God help city employees or contractors who think otherwise.