When Sean Elsbernd first took his seat on the Board of Supervisors to represent District 7, he was 28 years old, single, and just a few years removed from Claremont McKenna College, where he considered himself a dutiful San Francisco liberal on a campus filled with Goldwater Republicans. Now, the 36-year-old married father is considered the conservative standard-bearer in a city hall that was the first in the country to ban plastic bags in supermarkets.
SFW: What have you learned about San Francisco from your time in office?
Elsbernd: Lately, I've been coming to a bit of a conclusion that our city bureaucracy, our city staff, does a great job, and the city might be in a better place if the elected officials just get out of the way. When I first started I was of the mind of almost the exact opposite. But if you look at some of the work product that our city staff produces, and then sometimes the way elected leaders screw it up, it's too bad.
You come into City Hall and the city bureaucracy is kind of a bad word. Well, city bureaucracy's not so bad. You look at the Controller's Office, and -- one that I've been thinking about a lot lately -- eight years ago, 10 years ago, our Department of Elections was just crazy. I mean, we went through one director after another, ballots floating in the bay, craziness. You look at what [Elections Commission Director] John Arntz has done down there, he's done an exceptional job. For all the problems that we see, city government delivers quite well.
SFW: Why do you think there is this disparity between the staff, the bureaucracy, and the elected officials?
Elsbernd: It's the nature of politics. It is the innate desire of the elected officials to take credit. The city process, the bureaucratic process relies on, hopefully, what works best. But then when things rise to the level of the elected officials having to implement, sometimes best practice will get put aside because there will be a loud group of 10 people who the supervisor or the mayor or the commissioner is afraid actually represents a much larger group of the city, and we better do what those 10 people say. When in actuality, maybe it's just 10 loud people. Or maybe, those 10 people, they may actually represent a lot of people, but they're wrong; it's not the best thing to do. That's the nature of democracy.
SFW: Do you look back and ever catch yourself being one of the elected officials holding back the city's bureaucracy?
Elsbernd: Oh, undoubtably yes. I'll give you a good one. About three or four years ago, in my district, T-Mobile wanted to put up a cellular tower on top of the Safeway, on [Taraval] between 17th and 18th. And there were about 10 people who came yelling and screaming, "We don't want this antenna. Don't do this. Don't do this. We're all gonna get cancer."
I succumbed to the notion that those 10 people represented the vast majority of the neighborhood. I ignored planning direction, legal direction, all of that. And, representing my constituents when the appeal got to the Board of Supervisors, I encourage my colleagues to support the neighbors. T-Mobile turned around and sued the city. We lost. We ended up having to pay T-Mobile, and they got their antennas. That's a simple example, but that, I think, hits the four corners of what I'm trying to describe.
SFW: Are there any decisions you made as a supervisor that you wish you could go back and change?
Elsbernd: Sure. I think the biggest one in the district, my first year, 2005, there was a very contentious land-use issue at 800 Brotherhood Way. A housing proposal. Very organized opposition to the project. I believed in the project, thought it was the right project. And I pushed the project through at the Board and was able to get the votes at the Board. In the fact of many, many constituents coming to testify against it, and to this day, many constituents who still won't speak to me and disregard me because of that one vote.
I don't regret the vote, because it was the right vote. What I regret is the manner in which I handled it. I did not work well with my constituents on that one. That was a little bit of just getting elected into office hubris. There was a little bit of cockiness on my part: "Hey I'm the supervisor, I know what's right." And in hindsight, I look back, I was a 28-year-old punk who got elected to office but really should have worked a lot better with those constituents on it. There's no question that's probably my biggest regret.