Where to now, SFPUC?

War of words surrounding Susan Leal's removal offers more heat than light


Months after Mayor Gavin Newsom announced his intention to get rid of San Francisco Public Utilities Commission general manager Susan Leal, his appointees on the SFPUC board finally made if official on Feb. 20.

But the reasons for the previously unexplained move that have finally started coming from Newsom and his surrogates have only added to the confusion and concern over why Leal got canned and whether Newsom has compromised this important agency's work for political reasons.

Leal was terminated without cause and is thus entitled to the $400,000 severance package from the contract Newsom used to convince her to move from city treasurer to SFPUC chief in 2004. Nonetheless, in the days leading up to the Feb. 20 hearing, the Mayor's Office made a series of unsubstantiated allegations, including the claim that Leal botched negotiations with JPower over combustion turbines in Potrero Hill, that she was too much of a political animal and not enough of a team player, and that she didn't focus enough on Newsom's environmental initiatives like tidal power.

At first, Leal tried to handle her termination gracefully: for example, she told the Guardian that tidal power "is really expensive, doesn't generate much power, and is a difficult process to get approved, environmentally speaking."

But then Newsom told reporters that city officials had discussed terminating Leal for cause, so that the SFPUC could avoid paying her severance, but eventually decided against it to avoid potentially expensive litigation costs. At that point, with the implication that she had done something wrong, Leal's gloves came off.

"I really wanted to go out on the high road," Leal told us after Newsom's latest allegations hit. "It's unfortunate that the Mayor had to resort to 11th hour innuendo to try and justify what he did."

Leal notes that city officials never undertook a performance evaluation of Leal or the SFPUC, which would usually form the basis for an expensive effort to remove a high-profile public official. So why did Newsom really dump Leal?

Was it her creation of public power projects that earned her the scorn of Pacific Gas and Electric Co.? Was it her environmental initiatives, ranging from a biofuels program to a ban on bottled water, which seemed to show up Newsom? Was it the fact that she was a strong and independent woman in a male-dominated political landscape?

One clue can be found during the agency's Nov. 14, 2007, meeting — just before Newsom announced he wanted Leal gone — in which SFPUC president Dick Sklar ripped into Barbara Hale, the assistant general manager for power, after she made a presentation on the agency's long-term energy goals.

Sklar objected to Hale's presentation, claiming, "It implied adoption of principles stating that the SFPUC was going to be in the public power business and take over public power generation in the city, making statement of principles totally inconsistent with anything the commission had adopted."

Equally disturbing to staff was the abusive way Sklar delivered his message.

"It was very painful," Leal told us. "It got so bad I had to intervene. I'm not going to allow my staff to be yelled at."

At issue was the agency's plan to underground gas lines in Bernal Heights and extend its transmission lines, which Leal described as "a gimme. We have the easement all up the peninsula."

Beyond her openly pro–public power stance, Leal speculated that her friendly working relationship with the Board of Supervisors, including board president Aaron Peskin and Sups. Bevan Dufty and Sophie Maxwell, tweaked the mayor, who at times has seemed to have a personal vendetta against his former board colleagues.

"Maybe the mayor thinks that I'm too close with them. But we did more than just talk about climate change.