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Monday, January 18, 2010

SF Gov InAction: Hearing About Muni Is No More Disturbing Than it Needs to Be

Posted By on Mon, Jan 18, 2010 at 9:30 AM



Dear Alleged Readers: I'm burned out on politics. The meetings, the hearings, the the petty egos ... and that's just Bevan Dufty's schedule last week. I need to take a break.

So over the next several weeks I'll be asking some of my favorite local analysts, writers, bloggers, and personalities to pick up the onerous duty of keeping track of the supervisors and mocking them when appropriate. I'm very much looking forward to hearing what they have to say.

We start this week with Greg Dewar, the man behind the influential N-Judah Chronicles and one of San Francisco's most trenchant political minds, who also happens to almost be my neighbor. It's my pleasure to welcome him to this space.

Meanwhile I'm going to stay productive in my downtime. In addition to getting some much needed R&R, I'm also going to be working on a new cover story for SF Weekly that I'm very excited about. It's called "The Worst Run Big City Deli in the U.S.." It's going to make people rethink how much they pay for cold cuts, and I'm going to blow the lid off black forest ham. I don't think the Guardian will appreciate my chart about coleslaw, but I am determined to speak tangy truth to power. Especially about side dishes.

I leave this week in politics in  Greg's capable hands. 


      - Benjamin

If someone ever writes a book entitled Things San Francisco Political Nerds Like, it will inevitably contain a chapter called "Writing about Board of Supervisors Agendas." That's not meant as a dig -- it's simply true. Every Friday the agendas for all the various committees are posted online, and people can start figuring out what the board will or won't be doing, and judge as appropriate.

(It's too bad you can't do the same for the mayor's office, but I guess that's a benefit of being mayor.)

So, let's just say I was thrilled to be asked by Benjamin Wachs to write one for this week. Then I went to look at the treasure trove of upcoming public business and -- there's not a lot there, because we have the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday on Monday. That means the full Board won't be meeting on -- Tuesday. ("Things Board Members Like" Chapter 1 -- Taking The Day Off)

The remaining committees don't have a lot to do this week, either. Hmph. How can I retain my blogger street cred if there's nothing to write about?

However, upon closer inspection, there are some rather important things in the committee meetings you might want to be aware of, especially in light of some rather disturbing news announced across the street at the SFMTA. As a transit blogger by night, I guess I lucked out after all this week.

Wednesday, January 20th, 11 a.m. - Budget and Finance Committee


Interestingly enough, in addition to a small bit of regular business, the Budget and Finance Committee is holding a hearing at 11:05am the impact of upcoming SFMTA layoffs on "safety and health." That's interesting because on Tuesday, the SFMTA will be discussing some rather large budget cuts that will affect anyone who rides Muni (and affect those who do not, as you can expect more traffic and fewer parking spaces for your car.) So it'll be a special week for discussing Muni pain and suffering.

While no one likes to see people lose their jobs, all of these discussions are just that -- discussions -- because unless the board vetoes the MTA Budget completely, they can't really have much say over the operations of the agency. So they could find out Muni's firing everyone in the "Fix All The Brakes On the Buses" section, and "raise awareness" of this impending tragedy, but aren't in a position to really stop it unless they use the nuclear option. This was attempted last year but it ended up failing, and it's difficult to imagine anything different happening this year.

If they had a book called Things SF Supervisors Like, Chapter 2 would be "Having Hearings About Muni Without Much Power to Really Change It."

Then, at 2 p.m., they discuss an appropriation ordinance. Woo hoo!


Thurdsay, January 21, 10 a.m. - Rules Committee


In addition to some routine appointments, there's some rather provocative proposed charter amendments that have completed their 30-day wait in legislative limbo. Amending the Charter should be in the book Things San Francisco Political Types Of All Kinds Like, since doing so is a way to make someone look good, feel good, or do good. Sure, the road to Hell is paved with these things, but whatever.

Several really stand out. One is an amendment saying we need to alter our City Charter to include a provision that makes it illegal for any member of the Fire Department to drink on duty, and fire any fire department employee that does. Really? Is this such an epic problem that apparently we need to amend the local version of the Constitution to ensure our city is safe? REALLY?

Next, we have a couple of proposals from Supervisor Sean Elsbernd. I don't know what his future plans are, but usually when politicians start making a lot of complicated talk about budget matters, they're gunning for another office and are trying to burnish their "I'm not a flake with the public's money" cred. He has two, count 'em TWO charter amendments!

One has to do with trying to deal with the cost of providing pensions by making City employees pay their contribution to any benefit plan, so on and so on. This is an easy sell to voters, most of whom don't know what a pension is, let alone any sort of "retirement benefits." The one thing San Franciscans DON'T like is the idea that there's a bunch of people at City Hall getting something really good that they do not. So if this ever makes it past the Board, it might go somewhere.

The other is a "sounds good" measure about Muni driver pay that's designed to make Mr. Elsbernd look like a Friend of The Muni Rider, but is just a showboaty thing that won't help. People love to bitch about how much Muni drivers are paid, as if the only thing crippling Muni financially is the cost of what we pay the folks who drive them. They're easy to see, that grumpy one that splashed water on your clothes and pissed you off, and here comes Elsbernd, figuring he'll save Muni with this amendment (or at least look like it).

It's easy to pick on drivers as the sole cause of budget pain at Muni -- but the Elsbernd amendment doesn't address any other class of employees. HUGE pay and benefits for management? Not addressed. Pay and benefits for other non-driver employees. Not addressed. Fixing the huge hole in Muni's revenue caused by the State of California? Meh.

In other words, while this all sounds great, it won't really do much to save any money at Muni, and will also ensure the possibility of a system-wide strike. That's because the current system absolutely forbids any strikes, in exchange for a formula. Should we revisit the formula and tweak it to better serve SF citizens? Yes. Is this going to do that? Nope.

Plus, Elsbernd's record on Muni is rather spotty -- he was an enthusiastic supporter of last year's MTA budget which was replete with Muni-looting measures to pay expensive employees in other departments. So let's take his newfound Muni "advocacy" with a grain of salt. (Wait, isn't the mayor banning salt or something?)

Other than that, there's not a lot going on this week. In the book Things City Hall Employees Like the first chapter is also "Taking the Day Off." If you have the day off on Monday, enjoy it. If you don't, well, try to enjoy the day anyway. And remember you can always watch your City government in action (or is it inaction?) on SFGOV TV via cable, or online at


Greg Dewar writes about city transit at The N-Judah Chronicles (like you didn't know that) and about city politics at


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