COH sends in "hostage negotiators" during budget talks (VIDEO)


Members of the Board of Supervisors, their legislative aides, and other City Hall regulars were all looking a bit sleep-deprived as they darted from office to office at City Hall July 1 after ongoing budget negotiations kept everyone up late the night before. Just as an agreement on the city budget seemed within reach on June 30, Mayor Gavin Newsom and his chief of staff, Steve Kawa, had expressed strong opposition to several initiatives that progressive members of the Board of Supervisors sought to place on the November ballot.

The mayor's last-minute move was described by some as a quid pro quo that withheld support for an amended budget -- which included about $40 million in restorations to community programs that are high priorities for members of the board -- unless four different proposals were struck from the ballot. Three were proposed charter amendments dealing with commission appointments that would distribute power more evenly between the board and the mayor, and the fourth was a proposal put forth by Sup. Ross Mirkarimi that would have required the San Francisco Police Department to adopt a community-policing model and engage in neighborhood foot patrols, initially cast as an enlightened alternative to Newsom's proposed law banning sitting or lying down on the sidewalk. 

"In so many words, he had expressed clear dissent, and that was made relative to our budget proceedings," Mirkarimi said, noting that the mayor didn't phrase it in a way that would have run afoul of a law prohibiting that kind of bargaining over legislation. Newsom Press Secretary Tony Winnicker dodged repeated Guardian questions about whether Newsom was demanding conditions unrelated to the budget, coming closest to a direct answer when he said, "Before discussions of vetoing would even come up there would have to be something at the full Board to consider or veto, and there's not, so NO."

Technically legal or not, Newsom's move was enough to prompt members of the Coalition on Homelessness, an advocacy group, to decry it as "a hostage situation." As if negotiators ping-ponging back and forth across City Hall weren't jarred enough already, the Coalition on Homelessness and Budget Justice Coalition members opted to underscore their point by blasting heavy metal music outside the mayor's office windows in order to "push the standoff to a close, and release the needed funds to safety."

"The package of add-backs and cuts would have preserved the essential services San Francisco families rely on to survive the recession," the Coalition wrote in a press statement that was released as budget negotiations wore on. "In order to leverage political gain on unrelated issues, the Mayor chose to hold hostage the package of restorations to vital senior health services, youth violence prevention programs, mental health treatment and cuts to waste."

The heavy metal stunt only lasted about two minutes before deputy sherriffs put the kibosh on it, but "hostage negotiators" Patrick Flanagan (shown in the video wearing sunglasses), James Chionsini, Que Newbill, Lorraine Deguzman, Bob Offer-Westort, and Jennifer Friedenbach managed to make their way into the reception area of the mayor's office. Mike Farrah, director of the Mayor's Office of Neighborhood Services, was sent out for a bargaining session with the pizza-bearing crew. We caught the whole tense situation on film, and here's how it went:

The "hostage negotiations" session took place around 4 p.m. Around the same time, various members of the board were going in to meet with the mayor on what several described as "parallel conversations" regarding the charter amendments, and the roster of programs that supervisors wanted to see restored after Newsom proposed slashing them in his June 1 budget proposal.

As the Budget & Finance Committee prepared to meet around 6:30 p.m., the worst fears of the Budget Justice Coalition did not seem to be realized. City Controller Ben Rosenfield arrived to the board chambers with freshly printed copies of an add-back list that included most of the programs that were high priorities for progressive supervisors and community advocates. However, Newsom had not given that list his stamp of approval, so a final budget agreement between both parties remained elusive. Winnicker cast those add-backs as contrary to Newsom's wishes: "Don't for a second even try to suggest that it's improper to raise concerns about the fiscal impact of a new $40 million setaside in the context of a discussion of the budget."

As for the discussion about the charter amenments, Mirkarimi characterized it as "ongoing." Avalos called the preliminary amended budget "a work in progress," but members of the Budget & Finance Committee still voiced a round of thank-yous to one another and all of the community groups who were there to assist with the process.

The Budget & Finance Committee forwarded the budget, including the restoration package, to the full board. Using a variety of sources, supervisors were able to restore $32,941,541 in funding for programs ranging from homeless services, to mental health care programs, to programs that aid and assist impoverished single-room-occupancy hotel residents, and others. An additional $7.4 million meant to cover a variety of youth and senior programs will depend on a supplemental appropriation that won the committee's preliminary approval. Sup. Sean Elsbernd dissented on both counts, but still made a point of thanking the other committee members for their work.