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Thursday, July 19, 2007

SF Weekly on Muni: Is Giving the Board of Supes Control A Good Idea?

Posted By on Thu, Jul 19, 2007 at 9:49 AM

By Benjamin Wachs

"... Traffic isn’t a democratic process -- it either flows or it doesn’t, and so do you want the professionals in charge? ..."

A Board of Supervisors meeting is like aromance novel: the longer you stick around the more you think “Honest to God, just stop all that talking and get to the parts where you screw people!”

After yesterday’s big, long, theatrical budget meeting with tempestuous supervisors and a public hearing a mile long, it’s only natural that you find yourself wondering: “Well, how screwed are we?”

Lucky for you, I’m here to help. Here’s a recap of what happened last night, in case you find yourself waking up in a strange San Francisco bed, asking yourself “is this 24-hour homeless shelter government-funded?”

• The Budget:

It’s big, people – it’s gonna cost $6 Billion to run this city for a year; or $857 per man, woman and child resident. Not to put too fine a point on it, but what if we all just agreed to split that money among the 700,000 or so of us living here, and then all go somewhere else? (I'd buy an iPhone: ed.)

The Chronicle has a decent budget recap, which you should read to get the nuts n’ bolts. Here’s a few other observations:

- The Supervisors added funding for the city’s only 24-hour drop-in shelter,“Buster’s Place,” at the last minute. But they swear they never intended to pull its funding in the first place. The only reason Buster’s Place didn’t get its $1 million at the beginning of the budget, according to Board President Aaron Peskin, is that at that time Buster’s Place had lost its lease and indicated it wasn’t able to find another one. No shelter equaled no money for a shelter.

But when Buster’s Place suddenly got itself a lease, just in the nick of time, the supervisors actually fell all over themselves trying to throw money at it -- even after they’d agreed to fund it, supervisors got up to say that it needed to be funded.

- The money for Buster’s Place, and for the free clinic nursing positions that were restored, all came out of the affordable housing fund. Affordable housing, it seems, is this year’s slush fund to be raided whenever another priority needs cash. The original proposal to fund the nursing positions, in fact, was to take the money out of the fund for “website development” for the city. But that met with strong opposition from Supervisors Elsbernd and Alioto-Pier, who said that the city’s website is not yet ADA compliant, and that this was too important to put off. So … back again to affordable housing.

• Ballot Amendments

- This was a very bad week for affordable housing, as more money to fund it directly from taxes went down in flames. The brain child of Supervisor Chris Daly -- who if nothing else is admirably consistent on this issue -- it failed 4 – 7, even after being championed by Tom Ammiano.

- However, Daly did have a big win with his other proposed charter amendment, which would change the mayor’s job description so that he is required to attend Board of Supervisor meetings. The Examiner has a good recap of this issue (complete with backstory) here, although I wrote about it first (with less back story, but more flair) here ( It will go to the voters in November.

The vote was awfully close. A 6 – 5 vote can’t get any closer, and the breakdown of who voted for it and against it is, I think, a pretty good snapshot of where the board’s loyalties lie. Nays included Alioto-Pier, Dufty, Elsbernd, Jew, and Maxwell.

• Mass Transit

- Technically these are ballot amendments, but to my mind they stand out as one of the most interesting choices San Franciscans are going to get to make this November, so they get their own section.

As I’ve noted before, two radically different mass transit measures are winding their way through the Board of Supervisors.

One, if passed, would take MUNI almost entirely out of city hands: it would become an independent and -- hopefully -- depoliticized agency, with a dedicated source of revenue, and complete control over its own operations. Without outside political pressures, MUNI could finally do its job right. This is the brainchild of Board President Aaron Peskin.

The other, if passed, would put MUNI entirely into city hands. The Board of Supervisors would have direct control over every MUNI decision from budget to personnel. With outside political supervision, MUNI could finally do its job right. This is the brainchild of Supervisor Jake McGoldrick. Both charter amendments, at this point, are on their way towards the November ballot.

The Peskin amendment, I’m pretty sure, will make it. It has the support of the Mayor, which means that the five supervisors who would follow him through Hell for a photo-op are on board. Tom Ammiano has said he’ll be adding an amendment which would make the MTA Directors selected by the Mayor and Supervisors jointly (right now they’re appointed by the Mayor and approved by the Supervisors) – which might mean he’s on board, too. And, of course, Peskin’s for it … meaning they’ve very likely got at least the 6 votes they need.

The McGoldrick amendment (co-sponsored by Gerardo Sandoval) is a wild card. Right now it’s on track, but the vote count seems precarious. The Mayor’s five Nazgul might vote against it to protect the Peskin amendment, but that’s not a sure bet. If they do vote as a block, it will almost certainly go down – at least one of the other six supervisors will say “uh uh.”

Personally I’m strongly in favor of the Peskin amendment: depoliticizing MUNI and giving it a stable funding stream seems like the best possible thing you can do. What do you think, SF? Traffic isn’t a democratic process -- it either flows or it doesn’t, and so do you want the professionals in charge? Put the Supervisors in charge, and it seems like pet projects will flourish while the system melts down.

But I kind of hope both measures make it to the ballot in November, because that really will give the voters a profound and meaningful choice about the kind of city they want to live in. How do you want it to be run? What kind of government do you believe in?

And if the voters pass them both? Well, that’s just how screwed up we are.

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David Downs


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