With Mayor Gavin Newsom predicting a big budget deficit and seven Board of Supervisors seats up for grabs, everyone knew 2008 would be acrimonious.
But few suspected the war between Newsom and the supervisors would get so nasty so soon, even before the lunar Year of the Rat had officially dawned. The most telling development was the swift and nasty retaliation board president Aaron Peskin endured after he requested that Newsom return the $750,000 the mayor siphoned from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to pay the salaries of seven mayoral aides.
At the Jan. 29 Board of Supervisors meeting, Peskin publicly called for "an end to the budget shell game that has resulted in monies being shifted from Muni and other city departments to fund political employees who do not work for or directly improve services for the departments paying for their positions." Newsom's predecessor, Willie Brown, was the master of such budget games, but Peskin said, "There are those who defend this shell game by saying it is a long-standing practice here at City Hall. That may be true. But it doesn't make it right."
Peskin's demands came at a horribly awkward moment for Newsom: two months earlier the newly reelected mayor announced an immediate hiring freeze and across-the-board cuts to city departments, citing a projected $229 million budget deficit in fiscal year 200809. His administration blamed this looming deficit in part on the creation of 700 new city positions, including 100 new police officers and 200 public health nurses, plus pay raises for nurses, firefighters, and police officers.
Also blamed were a projected windfall loss of property transfer taxes and a bunch of voter-approved spending requirements, including the November 2007 voter-approved and Peskin-authored Proposition A, which transfers $26 million more annually from the city's General Fund to the MTA.
Newsom press secretary Nathan Ballard defended the use of MTA funds to pay mayoral staff salaries, claiming that all but one of the positions have a direct relationship to the work of the MTA, including the new director of climate change initiatives, Wade Crowfoot. "I know it's not pretty, but it is an efficient way of getting city business done. We are following the letter and the spirit of the law," Ballard reportedly told the San Francisco Chronicle.
But within a week the mayor's point person on transportation, Stuart Sunshine, announced he'll be leaving City Hall in February, while the Mayor's Office scrambled to explain why Brian Purchia, who developed Newsom's reelection campaign Web site last year and who last month started working in Newsom's press office for $85,000 per year, was hired as an MTA employee.
"The MTA has not and will not be paying any part of his salary," Ballard responded by e-mail Jan. 24 to a Guardian inquiry. "As of January 28, Purchia will be on a Mayor's office requisition." Ballard also blasted Peskin in the Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner, using incendiary language normally reserved for political campaigns and rarely employed by city employees talking about the president of the Board of Supervisors.
Retaliation for Peskin's publicly announced MTA refund request has also included two splashy Chronicle hit pieces attacking Peskin and the board that ran on the front page, above the fold, on two consecutive days.