SAN DIEGO ETHICS COMMISSION HEAD IS ALL ABOUT ACCOUNTABILITY
Sharon Spivak is a serious person, concerned with critical issues and thorny conundrums. This makes it all the more delightful when she mentions an unexpected early chapter of her career.
As a teenager, she was an on-air host for a show on early cable TV in the ’70s at Beverly Hills High School in Los Angeles. “The show was called Warm Hearts and Cold Noses. I would interview someone from the SPCA, put an animal on my lap and talk about how they were available for adoption. No one knew — because I hid it very well — that I had raging allergies to cats and most dogs. But I got through it,” she says, with a rueful laugh.
“I was very, very lucky to have the ability to create TV programming as a student in high school. I was also editor for the school newspaper, both of which informed my decision to go into the media, which I assumed would be my life’s pursuit,” Spivak says.
While the path that led Spivak ’95 (JD) to her current role as executive director of the San Diego Ethics Commission has had some twists and turns, the throughline is a lifelong dedication to doing the right thing. After earning her undergraduate degree in journalism from Northwestern University, she worked as a reporter for more than a decade.
After an internship in Washington, D.C., she moved to San Diego and worked for several newspapers before becoming a local, state and national political reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune. “I went on the road in 1987 and 1988 to cover the presidential campaign, which was a wonderful life experience.” Since it was an open election, there were many candidates to cover.
“It took me all over the country, but, of course, we didn’t have the budget of the big newspapers.” While other journalists traveled by plane — often alongside the candidates — Spivak was racing from town to town playing catch-up. “It was me in a rental car, in the middle of some state looking at a map — this was before the Internet existed — trying to call stories in to the newsroom —this was before cell phones — and now I sound as old as I am.”
Spivak decided to go to law school while continuing her day job for one reason, and one reason only: to become a better journalist. “The skill set of a lawyer is similar to a reporter,” Spivak notes. “I wanted that legal education to help me in my work.”
Her motivation to choose the University of San Diego’s School of Law was simple: “USD gave me the opportunity to go to law school without leaving my career,” she says. But it wasn’t easy. Four days a week, she’d work all day, then go to class from 5:30 to 8:45 p.m. Every weekend was spent reading and studying.
“I’m very grateful to USD,” Spivak says. “I had the opportunity to go to law school and to explore what it might mean for me. Absent the right program, I might not have done it. It’s a big risk to leave a career that you’ve been in for a long time, especially when it’s one you derive great meaning from.”
Although she’d fully expected to spend her entire working life as a journalist, those feelings changed. “As I got deeper and deeper into my education at USD, I realized that law was something I actually wanted to pursue.” And the timing turned out to be perfect.
“Things were about to change in journalism. The industry started shrinking,” she recalls. She went to work for Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich (now DLA Piper) — which she describes as “the big litigation firm in town” — and recalls it as a “terrific place to be well-trained as a litigator.” But before too long, she became a mother, which caused her to reassess best steps for her career.
“I needed to find a way to practice law and have time to spend with my daughter,” she says. She subsequently joined the city attorney’s office as a deputy city attorney and ultimately became the city’s elections attorney, focusing on city elections and ethics law. “Those were 15 good years,” she says. “I had many departments as clients, one of which was the Ethics Commission, so I was already familiar with this office.”
When the job of executive director became available, competition was fierce. Ultimately, Spivak was chosen from among 500 applicants after a nationwide search.
The Ethics Commission’s mission is straightforward: “To preserve public confidence in City government through education, advice and the prompt and fair enforcement of local governmental ethics laws.”
“This is a dream job for me,” says Spivak, who’s been in the role since late 2020. “It marries all my careers. We do investigative work, we do teaching and advisory work, we do a lot of writing in this job. All of the things that I used to do are helpful.”
Spivak calls her office “small but mighty,” and is deliberate in detailing what her role entails.
“We’re a very small part of a larger political process, but our role is critical. We give the best advice we can, often on a very quick turnaround. We are not lawyers for the people who call us. We are attorneys and we give them the best advice we can, so they can make their best possible decisions to navigate what can be a very nuanced, complicated process. We have to remain neutral at all times,” she says.
“I never forget this is public service. We want to be accessible and give those we instruct the tools they need to understand what the laws are. It’s really about preserving public confidence.” That said, she hastens to add, “We are not the morality police. My main goal is to make a very good agency even better.”
Asked what she’d share with those thinking about going back to school as a working professional, she’s quick to answer.
“There was a time when law firms didn’t fully appreciate the merits of the night program,” she recalls. “But I loved the level of conversation among all the working professionals
I went to night school with. We all brought something from our respective careers. If you’re committed, you should think about it. My law degree gave me opportunities I never would have imagined.” — Julene Snyder