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Thursday, October 4, 2012

Supervisor Sean Elsbernd Doles Out Advice for Newcomers on the Board

Posted By on Thu, Oct 4, 2012 at 7:32 AM

Supervisor Sean Elsbernd
  • Supervisor Sean Elsbernd

When Sean Elsbernd first took his seat on the Board of Supervisors to represent District 7, he was 28 years old, single, and just a few years removed from Claremont McKenna College, where he considered himself a dutiful San Francisco liberal on a campus filled with Goldwater Republicans. Now, the 36-year-old married father is considered the conservative standard-bearer in a city hall that was the first in the country to ban plastic bags in supermarkets.


Weeks away from his final day as a supervisor, Elsbernd sat down with SF Weekly to reflect on his two terms serving as the District 7 city sup.

SFW: What have you learned about San Francisco from your time in office?

Elsbernd: Lately, I've been coming to a bit of a conclusion that our city bureaucracy, our city staff, does a great job, and the city might be in a better place if the elected officials just get out of the way. When I first started I was of the mind of almost the exact opposite. But if you look at some of the work product that our city staff produces, and then sometimes the way elected leaders screw it up, it's too bad.

You come into City Hall and the city bureaucracy is kind of a bad word. Well, city bureaucracy's not so bad. You look at the Controller's Office, and -- one that I've been thinking about a lot lately -- eight years ago, 10 years ago, our Department of Elections was just crazy. I mean, we went through one director after another, ballots floating in the bay, craziness. You look at what [Elections Commission Director] John Arntz has done down there, he's done an exceptional job. For all the problems that we see, city government delivers quite well.

SFW: Why do you think there is this disparity between the staff, the bureaucracy, and the elected officials?

Elsbernd: It's the nature of politics. It is the innate desire of the elected officials to take credit. The city process, the bureaucratic process relies on, hopefully, what works best. But then when things rise to the level of the elected officials having to implement, sometimes best practice will get put aside because there will be a loud group of 10 people who the supervisor or the mayor or the commissioner is afraid actually represents a much larger group of the city, and we better do what those 10 people say. When in actuality, maybe it's just 10 loud people. Or maybe, those 10 people, they may actually represent a lot of people, but they're wrong; it's not the best thing to do. That's the nature of democracy.

SFW: Do you look back and ever catch yourself being one of the elected officials holding back the city's bureaucracy?

Elsbernd: Oh, undoubtably yes. I'll give you a good one. About three or four years ago, in my district, T-Mobile wanted to put up a cellular tower on top of the Safeway, on [Taraval] between 17th and 18th. And there were about 10 people who came yelling and screaming, "We don't want this antenna. Don't do this. Don't do this. We're all gonna get cancer."

I succumbed to the notion that those 10 people represented the vast majority of the neighborhood. I ignored planning direction, legal direction, all of that. And, representing my constituents when the appeal got to the Board of Supervisors, I encourage my colleagues to support the neighbors. T-Mobile turned around and sued the city. We lost. We ended up having to pay T-Mobile, and they got their antennas. That's a simple example, but that, I think, hits the four corners of what I'm trying to describe.

SFW: Are there any decisions you made as a supervisor that you wish you could go back and change?

Elsbernd: Sure. I think the biggest one in the district, my first year, 2005, there was a very contentious land-use issue at 800 Brotherhood Way. A housing proposal. Very organized opposition to the project. I believed in the project, thought it was the right project. And I pushed the project through at the Board and was able to get the votes at the Board. In the fact of many, many constituents coming to testify against it, and to this day, many constituents who still won't speak to me and disregard me because of that one vote.

I don't regret the vote, because it was the right vote. What I regret is the manner in which I handled it. I did not work well with my constituents on that one. That was a little bit of just getting elected into office hubris. There was a little bit of cockiness on my part: "Hey I'm the supervisor, I know what's right." And in hindsight, I look back, I was a 28-year-old punk who got elected to office but really should have worked a lot better with those constituents on it. There's no question that's probably my biggest regret.

SFW: How have you evolved as an elected official?

Elsbernd: Certainly learned not to sweat the small stuff as much. It used to be things like, there'd be a budget analyst report on some little dinky department's lease of a few thousand square feet that would show that we were spending $50,000 more than we should spend. And I'd go into budget committee and, "We can't do this!" [pounds fist on table]. Okay, I might still vote "No," but I'm not gonna be losing sleep over things like that anymore.

One of the other lessons I learned was, I think to be effective you can't spread yourself too thin. If you're trying to do port, redevelopment, housing authority, rec-park, DPH -- if you are trying to do everything, you're not gonna accomplish anything. Pick and choose a couple bigs projects, focus on your district, and you'll be a little more successful.

SFW: On the topic of terms limits, some elected officials, at various levels of various governments, have lamented that "as soon as we figured out how to do the job, we're on our way out." Do you feel that here?

Eslbernd: If you can't figure out how to do this job in six months, you shouldn't be in this job. Respectfully, the Board of Supervisors is not rocket science. ... I agree with that argument up in the state legislature. I mean, when we were at six years in the Assembly, it was ridiculous. But figuring out how to be a supervisor is not that difficult. This isn't Henry Clay, this isn't Teddy Kennedy time. This is local government. There's not a lot to it to be moderately successful. I think term limits locally are a great thing, and even if there weren't term limits, I'd be hard pressed to think I'd be running for re-election.

SFW: Why?

Eight years is enough. Eight years is enough for me. Certainly the personal situation I find myself now as a young father. More power to [Mark Farrell], who now has to do it with three kids. Not the easiest thing in the world to balance. I mean, this was the perfect job when I was 28 years old, single, no mortgage, no kids. Not the easiest job in the world, married, kid, mortgage, hopefully another kid someday. Not the easiest work-life balance.

SFW: What is it like being the conservative standard-bearer in San Francisco?

Elsbernd: I went to Claremont McKenna College. Claremont McKenna, this is home of Goldwater Republicans. Some of the professors on the government faculty there, who were my professors, are with the Heritage Foundation -- some pretty Republican, conservative-thinking people -- and that definitely influenced the student body. I was the San Francisco liberal at Claremont; I was the token liberal. Growing up, even on the west side of town, I would be considered somewhat liberal. But then you get thrown into the pot of city hall and, yeah, all of a sudden I'm the conservative element. I just find it funny. It didn't bother me.

SFW: Because you were given that label, did you ever feel any responsibility to be even more conscious of, say, the city's fiscal situation?

Elsbernd: I wouldn't say that. But I would say there were times when I would vote a certain way, where I believed it, but felt that, on a 10-1 vote or on a 9-2 vote -- and I had my share of those -- that I knew there was an element in the city that absolutely disagreed with what the Board was doing. And that that legislative body is supposed to be a room in which everybody's voice in the city is heard. And that, yeah, sometimes I've needed to stand up and say something on behalf of those folks.

SFW: What advice do you have for the person who takes your seat?

Elsbernd: Spend your first two years in office on district, district, district, district, district stuff. Don't get your feet into city stuff -- of course educate yourself. But your first term in District 7 should not be about citywide policies on things. Because Mike Garcia, Norman Yee, F.X. Crowley -- it'll be one of those three -- good people, but none of them know the district as well as they will if they really focus on it for the first two years. And if you're successful in you're first two years, you'll absolutely ensure yourself re-electon, if that's what you want.

That was the pattern I tried to follow, and it worked for me. In my first two years, I wasn't getting involved in pension, I wasn't getting involved in retiree healthcare, and citywide housing issues. I really tried to focus on the district -- there wasn't a neighborhood meeting of two or three people that happened that I wasn't at. And I would strongly encourage whoever takes my place, regardless of who it is, to do the same thing.

SFW: What have you learned about the political process in general?

Elsbernd: No matter what you think you can control, there are plenty of uncontrollable factors out there that will impact your success. The Muni measure that I did, where I went out and collected all those signatures -- fix Muni, Prop G, November 2010. I had no idea when I started that the same time that year, our public defender, who had never shown any real interest in city policy, was going to go out and collect signatures on a pension measure. And that both hurt me and it helped me.

It hurt me in the sense that there were two campaigns collecting signatures, which means it costs me a hell of a lot of money and a lot of time to go raise that money to collect those signatures. So that was the downside. But then, on the positive side, as I was preparing for the fall, preparing for the campaign, was fully expecting to have a very very difficult campaign. Figured labor would be very organized to beat the heck out of me. I would have never known when I started that effort back in January or February of 2010 that labor would let me just fly by without any opposition. Because [Public Defender] Jeff [Adachi] was out there and, understandably in their view, his measure was far more egregious and they needed to attack that.

SFW: What are you planning to do next?

Elsbernd: Don't know yet. Still trying to figure that out.

The way the offices in City Hall work, it's by seniority. And so, this is the biggest office, it's the best office. So I've only had this for a year and a half. ... I suppose that's the other challenging thing, as I leave here, a little disconcerting to think that here I am at 36 with probably the best office I'll have for the rest of my life. Corner office, City Hall, big balcony --this is pretty nice. Couches, a bar. I'm not expecting to see an office like this anytime again in my future.

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