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Ethics Commission

Obtaining Advice from the Ethics Commission

Who may ask for advice from the ethics commission?

A city official, candidate, lobbyist or other person who has duties or obligations under the City's local governmental ethics laws (or their authorized representative) can ask the ethics commission for telephone or written advice. Examples of authorized representatives include elected officials, candidates, campaign treasurers, lawyers and agency counsels.

What if I want advice about the activities of someone else?

If you are calling or writing to ask about someone else’s actions, and you are not authorized to represent that person, the ethics commission cannot give you advice about the requirements under the City's local governmental ethics laws. For example, it would not be able to provide advice if your fellow planning commissioner voted for a project and you suspect he or she may have had a conflict of interest. If you think someone may have violated a provision of local governmental ethics laws, you may file a complaint with the ethics commission.

What are the general rules about seeking advice?

  • Ask for advice before you act. Ethics commission staff members can provide you with telephone or written advice about future conduct only, not about actions already taken. Similarly, staff members do not provide advice about matters in litigation or about which a complaint has been filed with the ethics commission.
  • Call or write as early as possible in advance of your deadline. Our staff members make every effort to respond within your time frame. But some questions may raise complex issues that require research, so try to call or write as early as possible prior to the action in question.
  • Describe the facts fully. To receive the most accurate advice possible, identify yourself and the official or entities involved, state a clear question, and provide as many facts as possible.
  • Avoid asking for advice with regard to hypothetical situations. Instead, you are encouraged to ask for advice about a real transaction you plan to undertake or a specific decision coming before you.
  • Check previous ethics commission advice letters. We may have already answered a question similar to yours in a previous advice letter.

How do I get telephone advice?

As far in advance of the contemplated action as possible, call the ethics commission at (619) 533-3476 and speak with a staff member. The commission is open for business Monday through Friday (except holidays) from 8 a.m. until noon and 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. During exceptionally busy periods, you may have to hold for an available staff member, or you can leave a message and a staff member will call you back.

When will I get an answer when I ask for telephone advice?

Most calls for telephone advice are answered on the same day. If you are calling during an exceptionally busy period — such as before a statement filing deadline or an election — or if the ethics commission staff member needs to conduct research, a response to your call may take longer. If your question is factually complicated or presents a novel issue we have not advised on before, the staff member may not be able to give phone advice and may ask you to request written advice instead.

Does telephone advice provide immunity?

No. Telephone advice can provide you with valuable guidance and answers to routinely asked questions. But telephone advice does not provide the caller with immunity from administrative enforcement by the ethics commission. Only formal written advice confers limited statutory immunity on the requestor.

May the ethics commission decline to provide telephone advice?

If a question concerns past conduct, is purely hypothetical, is not related to the City's governmental ethics laws, presents vague facts, is too complex, or if the requestor is asking for anonymous advice, the ethics commission may decline to provide telephone or informal written assistance. Or it may limit its assistance to a general explanation of the requirements under local governmental ethics laws.

What is the difference between "formal" and "informal" written advice?

"Formal" written advice letters from the ethics commission apply provisions of local governmental ethics laws to very specific factual situations involving particular city officials. "Informal" written advice letters provide answers to general questions about local governmental ethics laws. Requests for written advice that seek general guidance and do not provide specific facts are treated as requests for informal written assistance. The designation of formal or informal written advice will be identified as such on the first page of the letter. Formal written advice confers limited immunity on the requestor; informal written advice does not.

How do I request written advice?

If you have a more complicated or non-routine question, or are seeking limited immunity, you may want to request written advice from the ethics commission. To request written advice, write a letter to: The City of San Diego Ethics Commission, 451 A Street, Suite 1410, San Diego, CA 92101. Your letter should include the following information:

  • Your name, title or position, and mailing address. If you are requesting advice on behalf of someone other than yourself, the letter must specifically state that you are authorized to represent that person.
  • The question. Clearly state the question(s) you want answered.
  • The facts. Provide all of the material facts and information related to your question in a clear and concise manner. Summarize relevant parts of attachments and enclosures in the request.

When will I get an answer to a request for written advice?

The ethics commission will make reasonable efforts to respond to a request for "formal" written advice within 14 days of receipt. If a staff member needs to contact you to get more facts to prepare the reply, or if your request poses a particularly complex legal question, the 14-day period may be extended. The 14-day period does not apply to "informal" written advice. The available resources of the commission dictate the response time applicable to requests for informal advice.

What happens to a request for written advice once the ethics commission receives it?

Ethics Commission staff may contact you to request additional facts or information needed to answer your request. When the advice letter has been completed, it will be mailed to you.

Once issued, are advice letters made public?

Yes. The Ethics Commission publishes its advice letters on the Ethics Commission website. Copies of the advice letters may also be obtained at the ethics commission offices for a nominal fee.

Does written advice provide immunity?

Formal written advice based upon accurate and complete facts provides immunity to the requestor from any enforcement action initiated by the ethics commission and is evidence of good faith in any other proceeding (e.g., an investigation initiated by the California Fair Political Practices Commission) if the requestor relies upon the advice in good faith. Formal written advice is not a declaration of policy by the ethics commission. It is the application of law to a particular set of facts. Though the advice may provide guidance to others, the immunity provided by formal written advice is limited to the requestor under the specific facts described in the letter. As discussed above, telephone advice and informal written advice do not confer immunity on the requestor.

May the ethics commission decline to provide written advice?

The ethics commission may decline to provide formal written advice if the requestor does not provide all of the material facts. The ethics commission may also decline to provide formal written advice if the request relates to past conduct, is purely hypothetical, or does not relate to an interpretation of existing governmental ethics laws. Additionally, the ethics commission may decline to comment on allegations concerning a violation of governmental ethics laws; such matters should be addressed to the commission in the form of a formal complaint.