When Mayor Ed Lee came to the Board of Supervisors for his monthly "question time" appearance Feb. 12, Sup. David Chiu tried to get some sense of where the mayor stood on a controversial piece of legislation that would allow more condominium conversions.
Chiu explained the complexities and implications of an issue where the two sides have dug in and appear to have little common ground, and he asked the mayor for some guidance.
"What is your position on this pending legislation?" he asked. "What protections would you support to prevent the loss of rent-controlled housing in our increasingly unaffordable city? How would you address the concern that if we allow the current generation of tenancy in common owners to convert, we will replace then with a new generation of TIC owners and additional real estate investments that will lead us right back to an identical debate within a short time?"
But if Chiu and other board members were looking for leadership, direction or a clue of where the mayor might stand, they didn't get it. Lee said he understood both sides of the issue and hoped they could reach a consensus solution — without offering any hints what they might look like or how to achieve it. "I can't say that I have a magic solution to this issue that will make everyone happy," the city's chief executive explained.
Asked by the Guardian afterward why he didn't take a position and whether he might be more specific about how he'd like to see this conflict resolved, he replied, "I actually did take a position, even though it didn't sound like it, because I actually believe they have good points on both sides."
That's a typical answer for a mayor who rose to power preaching the virtues of civility and compromise and striving to replace political conflict with consensus. But now several major, seemingly intractable issues are facing the city — and insiders say Lee's refusal to take a strong stand is undermining any chance for successful.
The lack of mayoral leadership has been maddening to both sides involved in the negotiations over the condo-conversion legislation. Tenant advocates say the mayor's waffling hardened the positions on both sides and emboldened the group Plan C and its allies in the real estate industry to reject the compromises offered by supervisors and tenant advocates.
"It's very unhelpful," San Francisco Tenants Union head Ted Gullicksen said of Lee's refusal to take a stand. "Someone needs to kick the realtors in the butt, and that's not happening. They have no impetus at all to compromise."
Then there's the case of California Pacific Medical Center's proposed new hospital, a billion-dollar project that would transform the Cathedral Hill neighborhood and have lasting impacts on health care in San Francisco.
The mayor's eagerness to get the deal done — even if it wasn't the best deal for the city — led to a proposal that fell apart last year under scrutiny by the Board of Supervisors. That project has now been in mediation for months — and sources tell us they're getting close to a deal that has little resemblance to the anything offered by the Mayor's Office.
California Nurses Association Director of Public Policy Michael Lighty, who has been involved with the CPMC negotiations, said Lee's unwillingness to take a strong and clear stand, or to help mediate the dispute once the deal blew up, is why this negotiation has been so difficult and protracted.
"If he had engaged stakeholders and the supervisors, we wouldn't have had to go to the brink last summer," he said. "You've got to have clear objectives and be willing to fight for those, and that means saying no...If you're willing to accept any deal and just put political spin on it, this is what you get."