Battles between the mayor and the supervisors are starting early
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With Mayor Gavin Newsom predicting a big budget deficit and seven Board of Supervisors seats up for grabs, everyone knew 2008 would be acrimonious.
But few suspected the war between Newsom and the supervisors would get so nasty so soon, even before the lunar Year of the Rat had officially dawned. The most telling development was the swift and nasty retaliation board president Aaron Peskin endured after he requested that Newsom return the $750,000 the mayor siphoned from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to pay the salaries of seven mayoral aides.
At the Jan. 29 Board of Supervisors meeting, Peskin publicly called for "an end to the budget shell game that has resulted in monies being shifted from Muni and other city departments to fund political employees who do not work for or directly improve services for the departments paying for their positions." Newsom's predecessor, Willie Brown, was the master of such budget games, but Peskin said, "There are those who defend this shell game by saying it is a long-standing practice here at City Hall. That may be true. But it doesn't make it right."
Peskin's demands came at a horribly awkward moment for Newsom: two months earlier the newly reelected mayor announced an immediate hiring freeze and across-the-board cuts to city departments, citing a projected $229 million budget deficit in fiscal year 200809. His administration blamed this looming deficit in part on the creation of 700 new city positions, including 100 new police officers and 200 public health nurses, plus pay raises for nurses, firefighters, and police officers.
Also blamed were a projected windfall loss of property transfer taxes and a bunch of voter-approved spending requirements, including the November 2007 voter-approved and Peskin-authored Proposition A, which transfers $26 million more annually from the city's General Fund to the MTA.
Newsom press secretary Nathan Ballard defended the use of MTA funds to pay mayoral staff salaries, claiming that all but one of the positions have a direct relationship to the work of the MTA, including the new director of climate change initiatives, Wade Crowfoot. "I know it's not pretty, but it is an efficient way of getting city business done. We are following the letter and the spirit of the law," Ballard reportedly told the San Francisco Chronicle.
But within a week the mayor's point person on transportation, Stuart Sunshine, announced he'll be leaving City Hall in February, while the Mayor's Office scrambled to explain why Brian Purchia, who developed Newsom's reelection campaign Web site last year and who last month started working in Newsom's press office for $85,000 per year, was hired as an MTA employee.
"The MTA has not and will not be paying any part of his salary," Ballard responded by e-mail Jan. 24 to a Guardian inquiry. "As of January 28, Purchia will be on a Mayor's office requisition." Ballard also blasted Peskin in the Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner, using incendiary language normally reserved for political campaigns and rarely employed by city employees talking about the president of the Board of Supervisors.
Retaliation for Peskin's publicly announced MTA refund request has also included two splashy Chronicle hit pieces attacking Peskin and the board that ran on the front page, above the fold, on two consecutive days. One includes a photo of Peskin alongside extracts from a five-month-old letter that was possibly leaked by the Mayor's Office (the confidential letter was copied to Newsom chief of staff Phil Ginsburg) in which Port of San Francisco director Monique Moyer alleges that Peskin made bullying late-night phone calls last August, when the Port was trying to get a measure passed to increase building heights along the Embarcadero a land-use issue that was resolved last year.
But Peskin isn't the only elected official to get his wrists slapped by the mayor in recent weeks.
In mid-January, Newsom upbraided San Francisco's entire delegation in Sacramento for lending their support to the board-approved affordable-housing City Charter amendment, which will be on the November ballot and seeks to set aside $33 million annually in affordable-housing funds for the next 15 years.
As Sens. Carole Migden and Leland Yee and Assemblymembers Fiona Ma and Mark Leno noted in a Jan. 7 letter to Peskin, local voters have not approved a renewal of the 1996 housing bond, and the board's proposed amendment builds on prior successful ballot measures to fund libraries, parks, and children's programs, which have been successfully implemented without significant budget impacts.
But Newsom wrote the delegation Jan. 11 to express his "disappointment."
"I cannot support the Charter Amendment, because it has significant implications for the future fiscal health of our City and the backbone of our public health care system San Francisco General Hospital," Newsom claimed, noting that the General Hospital bond is also on the November ballot. Then again, Newsom is also backing a Lennar Corp.financed measure that would approve the building of 10,000 housing units at Candlestick Point but wouldn't guarantee affordability levels (see "Signature Measures," page 10).
Meanwhile, fearing that Newsom is seeking to exert excessive control over several key commissions, the Board of Supervisors' progressive majority is seeking to ensure that the seven members of the MTA board are elected officials beginning November 2009 and to divide the power to nominate members of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission between the supervisors and the mayor.
These moves are coming at a time when Newsom has decided to replace three members of the MTA board who had alternative-transportation credibility but whose loyalty he apparently questioned: San Francisco Bicycle Coalition executive director Leah Shahum, Peter Mezey, and Wil Din. To fill those slots, Newsom appointed disabled-rights activist Bruce Oka, attorney Malcolm Heinicke (both of whom served on the Taxi Commission, which Newsom hopes to merge into the MTA this year), and Jerry Lee, a member of the Transportation Authority's Citizen Advisory Committee.
But the Board of Supervisors can block the mayor's MTA picks and that showdown looks likely, in light of Newsom's alleged misuse of MTA funds and his refusal to heed Peskin's call for a mayoral representative to appear before the board to explain Newsom's vision for the MTA.
Meanwhile, Sup. Jake McGoldrick told the Guardian he introduced a Charter amendment to make the MTA board seats elected positions. He argues that Prop. A not only increased the MTA's budget but also reduced the board's MTA oversight, so the body now needs to be more answerable to San Franciscans.
"It's about not having accountability at the legislative branch," McGoldrick said. "The MTA ridership and residents need to have a way to voice their concerns."
McGoldrick said the mayor's early removal of MTA members and his raid on MTA funds are troubling.
"Their removal reinforces what's going on, how the MTA is viewed as a milking machine for the Mayor's Office," McGoldrick said, noting that he asked for a budget analyst's report on the MTA several weeks ago to keep the discussion objective and that he also asked for an accounting of the 1,600 to 1,700 jobs that Newsom declared frozen last fall. That report should be available at any time.
"I wanted to see which jobs were frozen and which were defrosted," McGoldrick said, "but I didn't want it to become a political football."
However, with battles between the board and the mayor likely to get even intenser during the coming budget and election seasons, it's starting to look like 2008 could be one long political football season.