Guarded secrets

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By Rebecca Bowe

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How much did the mayor's security detail cost when he campaigned outside SF? SFPD isn't telling.

When San Francisco Police Department Assistant Chief Jim Lynch spoke before the Rules Committee this morning, he mentioned that the Police Chief George Gascon was unable to attend because he was at the swearing-in ceremony of Los Angeles’ new police chief.

“Out of curiousity,” Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier asked Lynch, “How many officers went to L.A. with Chief Gascon?” She was referring to his security detail for an event that was clearly unrelated to San Francisco city business.

Lynch replied that he could not say. When pressed whether security had in fact been provided for him by SFPD, he gave the same response. Sorry. Can’t tell you.

It’s the same response that Sup. Ross Mirkarimi received for months when he tried in vain to get the dollar amount for Mayor Gavin Newsom’s security detail for campaign-related events outside city and state borders. According to the SFPD, divulging that information could compromise security tactics.

The discussion at this morning’s Rules Committee focused on legislation authored by Mirkarimi, co-sponsored by Sups. John Avalos, David Campos, and Chris Daly, which would require elected officials to reimburse the city for the cost of “dignitary security” (think bodyguards) when that protection is provided on the campaign trail outside San Francisco.

“It’s not about one elected official,” Mirkarimi noted, while acknowledging that Newsom’s frequent travel had sparked interest in the issue. “It’s about reviewing standard operating procedure,” he said, and creating a system for cost recovery when taxpayer dollars are used to send SFPD forces off to campaign-related events. With the General Fund already in rough shape, Mirkarimi added, “fiscal vigilance is demanded.”

Mirkarimi put forth a “guesstimate” based on his own calculations and background knowledge that such costs currently amounted to approximately $1 million per year. He added that when he checked in with city governments in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Phoenix, he learned that none of them provide out-of-state security detail for their own elected officials.

If this legislation had been in place when Newsom was running for governor, the mayor would have had to provide a schedule explaining how much time away was spent on campaign-related activities, calculate how much the city was owed based on that amount of time, and reimburse the city for those security costs. He could have paid out-of-pocket, Deputy City Attorney John Gibner told the Supes, or he could have arranged for a third party like his own political action committee to foot the bill.

Gibner said that as written, the legislation would apply even if an elected official was engaging in campaign-related activity on behalf of some other candidate, but wasn’t himself or herself a candidate for office. Mirkarimi said he’d intended for it to apply only to elected officials who, like Newsom, were campaigning for office, but Daly seemed to support the broader interpretation.

Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier joined the SFPD in opposing the legislation, although she did say, “I’d like to know how much his security detail costs, too.” But she drove home the point that when Newsom was traveling around the state in support of same-sex marriage, he was receiving threats due to his controversial stance. She also put forth a scenario of Newsom traveling to San Jose in support of President Barack Obama for a presidential campaign-related event and said she didn’t think he should have to pay out of pocket to represent the city.

Daly dismissed her concern on the first point, saying, “this legislation in no way would hamper the mayor’s ability to advocate on the gay-marriage issue,” and added, “I don’t see anything that would prevent Barack Obama for America from reimbursing the City and County of San Francisco” if the campaign requested the mayor’s presence. The point, he said, is that traveling to San Jose for a personal or political purpose couldn’t be considered city business anyhow.

Campos, for his part, indicated that he supported the legislation because it seemed fiscally prudent. “The question here,” he said, “is when an elected official is involved in campaign activity, at what point is it appropriate for the public to pay for that?”

The legislation was forwarded to the full Board with the stipulation that some amendments would be made to address SFPD’s concerns about the timeline of providing information. Alioto-Pier dissented.

Even with the Board taking a step forward on recovering public dollars spent for political campaigns, the question of how much the security detail costs still remains unanswered. The assistant police chief did mention that the department would be willing to release “a figure that discusses … dignitary security in general” in closed session. But as it stands, the SFPD still holds all the power to determine unilaterally, and without disclosure of cost, when, where, and how it guards elected officials.