Santa Clara vs. SF: Are Free Tickets for Lawmakers Ethical?

NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit compares two Bay Area cities separated by 45 miles of roadway and one major ethical difference: should tickets to 49ers games be free for elected officials?

More than 69,000 49er fans bought tickets to watch the game at Candlestick Park Sunday night, but some San Francisco lawmakers had the option to go for free.

It’s a free ticket policy written into Candlestick Park’s contract with the city three decades ago and supported by the San Francisco City Attorney in this ruling this past summer.

However, the 49ers won’t be in the city by the Bay for long: the team is headed south to make a new home in Santa Clara, and the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit found, that the city attorney there has a different perspective on the ethics of free tickets for lawmakers.

“The acceptance of tickets presents thorny ethical issues,” Ren Nosky, Santa Clara's city attorney, told NBC Bay Area.

Earlier this year, the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit reported a majority of San Francisco supervisors accepted free tickets to 49ers games.

To view the report, click here.

NBC Bay Area also found commissioners for the San Francisco Recreation and Park department scored free tickets, in this second report.

The catch is, when lawmakers attend games for free, they must serve a public purpose: by gathering public input on the city’s facilities or increasing public exposure to the recreational facilities available to the public

However, the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit found that’s not always the case.

Last February, Supervisor John Avalos of District 11 said he gave his free tickets for the NFC Championship game to his mother-in-law, even though this document shows he used them for a public purpose.

When NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit questioned in February about continuing the practice of accepting free tickets this season, he responded: “I think I am going to put an end to it for me personally.”

So the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit followed up with Avalos this week.

When asked about the ethics of the free tickets, Avalos responded, “This has been a practice we have had in San Francisco for years.”

Investigative reporter Tony Kovaleski pushed back, asking if the supervisor will accept the free tickets this season.

“I have not decided yet,” Avalos responded. “I am not going to decide right now what I am going to do.”

However in the South Bay with a new stadium less than two years away, the Santa Clara city attorney has a different view on the ethics of free tickets for elected leaders.

“None of our elected officials or staff members from the city are receiving any kind of tickets,” Nosky said.

Santa Clara’s contract for the new stadium intentionally excludes language providing free tickets for city leaders.

Contrast this to San Francisco’s contract with Candlestick, which gives 76 tickets per game to San Francisco supervisors, the mayor and the city's Recreation and Park department.

“We certainly don’t want any perception that any city official is reaping some kind of inappropriate benefit from our relationship with the team,” Nosky said. “We thought that sort of thing would be contrary to the city’s ethical policy and we also didn’t want to create the appearance of impropriety.”

Golden Gate University Law Professor and ethicist, Peter Keane, agreed: “I think the city of Santa Clara has to be commended for honesty, for good government for holding elected leaders to the highest standard of conduct."

Keane has publicly criticized San Francisco city leaders for allowing free tickets at Candlestick Park.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, however, thinks otherwise.

“I think we are doing ok with it and so far there has been no questions,” Mayor Lee said.

However, Mayor Lee does not personally use the free tickets he receives.

He told NBC Bay Area he plans to donate them, even though his city attorney has given the ethical green light for elected leaders to accept free tickets to Candlestick Park.

Following NBC Bay Area's investigation in February, some supervisors have reconsidered.

District 3 Supervisor and President of the Board, David Chiu, said he will not take tickets for free. “I have made the decision that moving forward that I am not planning to, because I understand the issues that have been raised,” Chiu said.

Neither is Supervisor David Campos of District 9.

That’s a change in his policy from last year, when he accepted tickets to three games.

“I decided not to do that this year,” Campos said.

Kovaleski asked Campos if he thought it was unethical.

“I think there are different reasons why people do things; for me, it was the right thing to do and people have to decide for themselves,” Campos said.

Supervisor Eric Mar of District 1 also changed his policy from last year when he accepted two tickets to four 49ers games, attending two and giving two games' tickets to his staff members. This season he will not use the free tickets for personal use.

Kovaleski asked Mar what he thought about Santa Clara’s position.

“I am not sure if I agree with the city of Santa Clara’s policy, but I think in the future I would probably buy tickets to go to a game,” Mar replied.

A total of five of the city’s eleven supervisors changed their policies from last season, electing not to accept free tickets for personal use during the 2012 season.

This is how the supervisors' ticket acceptance chart looked last year.

Four San Francisco Supervisors, Carmen Chu, Scott Wiener, Jane Kim and John Avalos, accepted free tickets for personal use last year and have all left the door open to again accept free tickets this season.

One supervisor, Sean Elsbernd of District 7, donated all his tickets last year and said he will do the same this year.

Christina Olague of District 5 took office at the end of the football season last year, attending the NFC champsionship game but  said she will donate the tickets this year and give back ones that are unused.

“It really shows a gall on the part of the city attorney and the city officials who are taking the free tickets which you just can’t justify,” Keane said.

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