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Wednesday, Jun 23 1999
Rescue Muni to the Rescue
The Rescue Muni city charter amendment heading for the November ballot would, if passed, accomplish some modestly important reforms. The amendment attacks inane union Muni work rules, creates a politically insulated agency to run public transportation, provides that agency with stable funding -- and, for the first time, makes Muni accountable, in a binding way, for its performance.

To avoid electoral war among anywhere from two to four competing Muni ballot proposals, Rescue Muni compromised away a good portion of the reforms it originally proposed.

Now, some critics are saying the riders' advocacy group sold out. But the sellout epithet is a simpleton's way of looking at what Rescue Muni has accomplished over the last year-and-a-half, both in terms of policy and politics.

If the policy strides Rescue Muni and its allies made are, arguably, modest (and that is indeed an arguable proposition; there's a solid argument to be made that the proposed reforms are fundamental), the group's political accomplishments are truly remarkable.

And truly refreshing.
What began in 1996 as a group of politically divergent geeks of small experience complaining (endlessly) about bad Muni service has transformed itself and accomplished something quite remarkable: a striking reconfiguration of political power in San Francisco.

It used to be that San Francisco labor protected its interests regardless of how they affected the city's ability to deliver basic services to its citizens. This was never more obvious than when it came to the Municipal Railway, where union contract provisions stymied efficient service.

Likewise through the years, big business hereabouts weighed itself down with self-interest, trying to cut the cost of government at every turn, again regardless of the effect on service-delivery.

A resulting stalemate persisted largely because it was moderated by feckless politicians afraid of angering either transit unions or downtown capital; both, after all, were crucial to re-election efforts.

Willie Brown faithfully carried on this tradition. The man who fielded campaign signs in 1995 that read, simply, "Leadership" showed none as he confronted and was all but swamped by the Muni crisis.

The break in the Muni impasse required the arrival of an entirely new political formation. As far as public transportation was concerned in 1999, leadership came not from union halls, corporate boardrooms, or City Hall, but from the bus stops.

The success of Rescue Muni's efforts shows that there is always an opening for new political leadership in San Francisco. In this case, Republicans and Democrats, Fabian socialists and environmentalists all broke out of their shells and, united by their shared experience as Muni riders, stared down the most powerful forces in the city and finally made some progress toward Muni reform.

And as this new political constellation came into alignment, Willie Brown, supposedly the most brilliant political intriguer in the state, was relegated to the sidelines, acting, in the end, as a polite observer of a political process over which he had almost no control.

"If the 31 B Express ran well I wouldn't be here today talking about running a charter amendment on the ballot," says Andrew Sullivan, the 28-year-old chairman of Rescue Muni, sitting over a gigantic sandwich at Einstein's Cafe on Ninth Avenue.

Like the vast majority of Rescue Muni members, Sullivan came to the issue of improved public transportation through personal experience. From the early to mid-'90s, Sullivan, a registered Republican, lived at Central and Grove in the Western Addition and worked in a series of low-level jobs downtown. Almost every day, Muni made him late for work. "I just kept missing meetings," he said. "I had to get a car just to get to work on time."

By the time Sullivan became a regular Muni rider, the system had been abused by two recession-era mayors for close to 10 years. Middle management had been decimated. Among the important positions cut were the street-level supervisors who had ensured that drivers made their stops on time.

The Muni fleet had been underfunded, leaving the agency with aged buses that broke down and missed runs.

Among Muni's biggest service problems was absenteeism, one-third of all employees on average failing to show up for either part of a shift or the entire shift. This astonishing absenteeism rate was a direct result of union work rules, most notably the provision in drivers' and mechanics' contracts that allowed them to miss shifts without calling in and, as it worked out, without being disciplined.

Mayor Brown, like all the recent mayors before him, opted to side with Muni workers over the 700,000-some people who ride Muni every day. When he negotiated his first contract with the Muni unions in 1996, he left in place all the provisions that contributed to absenteeism.

He should have known better.
Sullivan and Rescue Muni would teach him.

A mere month after the Board of Supervisors approved Mayor Brown's first Muni contract agreement, two frustrated riders, Ken Niemi and George Musser, formed Rescue Muni.

Niemi, angered by the new contract, wrote letters to the San Francisco Examiner advocating solutions to Muni's problems. Musser read the letters, called Niemi, and eventually the two men launched a Web site cataloging their ideas for Muni reform. The group held its first meeting on Oct. 30, 1996.

At first the goals were almost laughably simple: more accurate destination signs on buses, drivers who'd call out stops and explain bus breakdowns to passengers, and so on.

The group quickly became a darling of the Examiner, the city's afternoon daily. The paper had run a story heralding the new group, drawing a healthy turnout to its first meeting.

Among those in attendance were Andrew Sullivan and another frustrated Muni rider, Dan Murphy. Murphy had spent several years employed as a low-level political consultant, organizing slate mail for environmental groups and working for liberal politicians, including former Mayor Art Agnos. A lifelong Muni rider and Democrat, Murphy had served as president of the Sunset Democratic Club from 1992 to 1995.

About The Author

George Cothran


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