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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Peskin -Newsom Triumphant on MUNI

Posted By on Wed, Jul 25, 2007 at 8:44 AM

His mission to take MUNI management out political hands clears a major hurdle

By Benjamin Wachs

It looks like the San Francisco’s Supervisors are getting out of the transit business. Come December, MUNI may be running itself.

Yesterday, in a series of debates so impassioned the transcripts should be read by Charlton Heston, a proposed ballot measure to take MUNI out of political control passed its most significant hurdle, surviving by the skin of its teeth through a series of 6 – 5 votes.

If nothing changes next week, the proposal -- authored by Board President Aaron Peskin -- will be on the ballot in November.

A few minutes later, the Supervisors handily rejected a measure proposed by Supervisor Jake McGoldrick that would have done just the opposite -- put MUNI under the direct control of the Board of Supervisors, making it one more city department to be shaken down for pet projects every year at budget time and getting politicians involved in personnel disputes.

That measure failed 3 – 8, with Supervisors McGoldrick, Sandoval, and Daly ( yes.

While the McGoldrick amendment was almost certain not to pass, no one knew going in if the Peskin amendment had the votes to survive. The measure received a huge boost on Monday, however, when both Mayor Gavin Newsom and the various unions affiliated with MUNI publicly endorsed it.

Newsom’s support had been likely from the beginning, but the labor endorsement came only after months of behind the scenes negotiations. As little as two weeks ago union members were still lining up at Rules Committee hearings to voice their objections. Taking the politicians out of MUNI, they argued, would (somehow) increase political patronage, reduce revenues, hurt efficiency, and upset riders. The union’s objections, though, were primarily to a provision that would have increased the number of MUNI positions that were at-will employees (and hence able to be fired) from about 1% to 10% of the total workforce.

“This is a union town,” one member told the Rules Committee, “and we expect it to stay that way.”

It will. That provision was dropped, and in the current bill the number of at-will employees will top out at just under 3% of MUNI’s workforce. Now the union leadership is on-board … though next week’s public hearing will be the real test of the rank-and-file’s change of heart.

Another change, meant to put both unions and the Supervisors at ease, would increase the ability of the Board of Supervisors to flat out veto a MUNI budget. Under the Peskin amendment, the MUNI budget would not be subject to changes or alterations from the Board of Supervisors: its funding stream would be dedicated as a percentage of tax revenues, it would be able to borrow money and to issue its own bonds. However, at present the Board of Supervisors can veto its budget with an 8 – 3 vote. Under the altered Peskin amendment, it would only take 7 supervisors to veto.

The horse trading is over, now -- after yesterday’s vote no more changes can be made. Next week the public can make comments and the Board of Supervisors can give it an up-or-down vote … and it looks like it has the votes to make it through.

Supervisors Elsbernd, Dufty, Maxwell and Jew consistently voted in favor of the amendment, and can be expected to next week. Peskin, obviously, supports his own amendment, making five, and Tom Ammiano announced his intention to support it, too. (Actually, what he said was: it’s a “thin” measure, and nowhere near as cool as 1999’s Proposition E, which he pushed through back in the days when legislating really meant something, but he’ll support it anyway because it’s probably a good idea.) That makes six. In addition, Ross Mirkarimi … though often supportive of McGoldrick’s efforts to water the Peskin amendment down … said he’s generally in favor of Peskin’s approach, and voted for it once all the horse trading was done. That’s 7.

If a one Supervisor margin-of-error is enough it will be up to the voters to decide if they think that an independent MUNI is an efficient MUNI. The citizen committees observing MUNI, as well as the board of directors for other transit organizations, think it will. Peskin points out that many of the powers his bill would give MUNI are taken for granted by the mass transit systems of other major cities like New York

McGoldrick, however, said that without his measure on the ballot, too, the voters won’t really have a choice.

“The fact that we ourselves … representing three quarters of a million people … had such a (close) debate … suggests that this is an issue the voters will be debating closely, too,” he said. “They should have that choice” of voting for full city control, no change, or an independent MUNI.

At some level, he’s right: is it ironic or appropriate that, in endorsing a measure that would take MUNI’s operations out of the political process, they’ve also kept the voters a little out of the loop?

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David Downs


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