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Civility and Its Discontents: City Politics Finally Drops the Cordial Bullshit 

Tuesday, Aug 12 2014
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In San Francisco, August is an afterthought. An ever-widening stream of tourists inundates our city, supplanting the residents who flee in their wake. We follow our leaders: Elected officials decamp from the city to the far-flung destinations they've been observed booking tickets for during public meetings. Everyone, in fact, may end up in the same camp. San Francisco will soon experience critical shortages of hula hoops, faux fur, and all manner of intoxicants as Burners disembark from our serenely temperate city to weather sandstorms and the 110-degree heat of the Playa.

In a platonic convergence of San Francisco pastimes, our legislative session recommences on Sept. 2, one day after Burning Man breaks up. And we can all go back to being cordial and staid.

Or maybe not.

After years of bile-strewn, bare-knuckled, personality-driven city politics, the city's most toothy political sharks in 2011 installed Ed Lee in City Hall's Room 200. This was portrayed as a move akin to Shakespeare's Prince Hal Moment: Upon ascension to the throne, our atypical leader was transformed into a wise and all-knowing sovereign. No more would San Francisco be subjected to vindictive squabbling. Our city would now be led under the auspices of mature and consensus-driven politics.

We'd be civil. And we'd be boring.

But, it turns out, San Francisco isn't entirely capable of either of these designations. As San Franciscans prepare for Burning Man, the majority of our supervisors prepare to be burned. Because City Hall's facade of civility has gone up in smoke: Mayor Lee has pledged retribution against the six legislators who greenlit a Scott Wiener transit funding measure he despises.

Meanwhile, sources inform your humble narrator that the mayor's office told affordable housing developers that success for a Jane Kim housing measure not to his liking would result in the evaporation of their city funding. Like hostages, these organizations were cajoled into pleading with Kim to back down.

And that happened.

Perhaps this is just a return to politics as usual. But at least we no longer have to pretend otherwise.

Attempts to fund Muni in this city hark to a troop of clowns hauling stacks of custard pies down rickety stairways. It's always a mess. And the goods never get delivered.

In 2007, erstwhile board President Aaron Peskin's Proposition A purported to inject $32 million a year into Muni's bereft coffers. But that didn't happen: Instead, prevented by the electorate from simply taking the money now earmarked for Muni, city departments began pillaging the transit agency by charging Muni for tasks those departments were already legally obligated to provide. A voter-approved measure to bestow Muni with scores of millions of dollars actually eviscerated its finances to the tune of scores of millions of dollars. Muni continues to be treated as the city's slush fund.

Your commute continues to suck.

This year, Wiener introduced a measure to, ostensibly, get that money back. By tying transit funding to the city's burgeoning population, he could begin filling a $22 million hole in Muni's budget. This is — emphatically — not a mayoral priority. But, to Wiener's great surprise, five fellow supes voted to put his measure on the ballot. This apparently flummoxed the mayor, too — your humble narrator is told that, since Wiener was perceived as having no leverage and no path to six votes, there was little impetus to negotiate regarding the Castro supe's ploy to beef up Muni's service and reliability.

And now the time for negotiation is past.

At issue here is a $500 million transit infrastructure bond looming on November's ballot. In a monomaniacal drive to assure this bond receives its requisite two-thirds vote, the mayor and his proxies have curtailed Sunday parking meters, spiked a proposed vehicle license fee, denigrated Wiener's proposed tax on sugar-sweetened beverages and, now, shifted into war mode regarding the Muni funding measure in a belief that, somehow, these items will sour voters on their big bond.

There is scant empirical, historical, or even anecdotal evidence demonstrating the electorate would behave this way; the nexus between voters sizing up a tax on Mountain Dew and subsequently bailing on a half-billion dollar transit bond only seems to make sense after a bout of carbon monoxide poisoning.

As November approaches, your humble narrator and others will peel back the layers and analyze what this half-billion dollar bond delivers and what it doesn't. But, between now and then, the more immediate focus is on the rapidly shifting rules of the game. When you openly threaten wayward legislators with retributive attacks targeting their pet constituencies or, allegedly, extort those constituencies into doing your dirty work for you, the cloak of civility wears thin.

There was no Prince Hal Moment. In reality, even Prince Hal didn't have a Prince Hal Moment.

When people despise one another or harbor serious policy differences, the politics of consensus become unworkable; it's akin to forced Zen. The transit-funding battle that precipitated this bout of public nastiness started with that most Lee-like display of accord and civility: a massive, overarching task force.

And yet, when members of that task force began pushing the task force's own recommendations, they were threatened with Cosa Nostra-like reprisals: You know, it'd be a shame if something unfortunate was to happen to District 8. Districts break, y'know. We wouldn't want that, would we?

The politics of personal destruction are, of course, alive and well in San Francisco. The prohibition was apparently only on acknowledging this or getting caught playing the game. Well, so much for that.

In recent months, it has grown apparent that many once and future mayoral allies on the Board of Supervisors are coming into their own — and growing a bit restless. Quite a few of the city's legislators now seem anxious to stretch their legs.

It remains to be seen how many will have them broken.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

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