The wheels come off

Chiu leads efforts to build a budget consensus in Newsom's absence

Criticism of Mayor Gavin Newsom's handling of the city's budget crisis has intensified since the mayor refused to attend consensus-building sessions at City Hall, instead choosing to promote his gubernatorial bid and push a flawed "local economic stimulus package" that will only make the deficit larger.

The wheels began to come off Newsom's public relations machine when news hit that Newsom refused to attend roundtables that board president David Chiu convened to discuss the city's financial emergency. These meetings marked the first time business and labor leaders were brought together since the mayor announced the city's $575 million deficit two months ago.

"I've asked the mayor to convene these meetings, but obviously that hasn't happened," Chiu told the Guardian last week. "He has said he plans to convene them soon."

Insiders say Chiu was told that the mayor, his chief of staff, and his budget analyst will not attend the roundtables until a June special election is off the table, but that Newsom is open to considering revenue measures for a November election. As a compromise, Chiu proposed moving the election to late summer.

Mayoral spokesperson Nathan Ballard told the Guardian that the mayor has been holding a series of meetings with labor, business, elected officials, and community leaders on the budget, but Ballard hasn't yet fulfilled the Guardian's Sunshine Ordinance request for details and documents connected to those meetings.

"Some of those meetings have included Supervisor Chiu and other supervisors," Ballard said. "However, the mayor is not scheduled to attend meetings about a summer special election to raise taxes, which he opposes."

That position places Newsom squarely with the business community, which continues to maintain that it is too early to develop revenue measures and that structural budget reforms should be considered first.

On Jan. 29, Steve Falk, executive director of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, wrote to Chiu that "Any action to call a special election without the specifics of proposed tax measures and Charter amendments would be premature and doomed to failure. City government can take steps that either help to stimulate a quick recovery or, through the wrong actions, extend the downturn by placing greater burdens on local employers."

But labor groups believe that revenue boosts are necessary if San Francisco is to weather the economic tsunami, and that it's unreasonable to demand that their members give back millions in negotiated pay raises while forgoing revenue options. These concerns, attendees report, are publicly aired at Chiu's roundtables, and Newsom's refusal to participate has left city workers feeling alienated.

"He wants Labor to come to the table, but the problem is, his whole approach is all stick and no carrot, all doom and gloom and no hope that there is revenue on the horizon," SEIU Local 1021's Robert Haaland told the Guardian.

Noting that labor anticipates 2,500 layoffs in the coming year, on top of the 400 city workers who were laid off this month, Haaland said, "Our people provide frontline services. This is about the wheels of government coming off."

Sup. Bevan Dufty, who participated in Chiu's roundtables with Sups. John Avalos and Sean Elsbernd, praised Chiu for bringing together stakeholders, even as he extended hope that Newsom will assume the leadership role. "It always helps to have people face-to-face," Dufty said. "David primed the pump, got people to start talking. I'm looking forward to the mayor taking it to the next level."

Dufty said Newsom was "disappointed with the board's override of his veto [of the June special election], doesn't see a June election working, and doesn't understand why the board is reluctant to let it go....