Thursday, January 13, 2011

New Mayor, New Lt.

San Francisco has a new mayor this week as Gavin Newsom finally accepts his populist promotion to Lieutenant Governor. The 6’3” political progressive (actually considered a “moderate” in the City’s own political culture) heads to Sacramento to catch up with Jerry Brown's administration after delaying his swearing in by a week in order to secure the support of a new Board of Supervisors. The incoming BoS is more conservative than its predecessor, which was for years dominated by a bloc of Progressive supervisors often at odds with Newsom on economic policies. Among other benefits, a more cooperative field of local legislators has allowed the outgoing executive to negotiate the appointment of an interim mayor that will serve through the rest of 2011 until scheduled elections are held this Fall.

There was an array of potential candidates being offered up for the position before this week’s resolution. At the top of the short list were SFPUC General Manager Ed Harrington (that’s right, Uncle Eddy), Sheriff Michael Hennessey, and City Administrator Ed Lee. All of the most serious candidates were touted as effective and generally a-political administrators that would expectedly focus more on operating the hybrid City-County and its financially troubled agencies well, without getting their hands into the cookie jar/bear trap that is the upcoming mayoral race.

Nearly a dozen notable figures have already declared or expressed an interest in the election this fall, including several of the incumbent members of the Board of Supervisors. And this is where the whole thing gets sticky.

You see, in any other sane city, the responsibilities of the executive would normally fall to the Cit Administrator or City manager when the mayor leaves for a new job or otherwise resigns before the end of his/her term (assuming that those responsibilities do not already lie with said administrator – how does your City operate?) In many cities – especially smaller ones – these administrators are responsible for the successful day-to-day operations of the municipality, and the Mayor is instead a figurehead or part of the local legislature. This is called a Council-Manager form or mayoralty, and is the model de facto in places like Los Angeles and Phoenix.

This transfer of authority makes sense, right? The executive leaves and you as Urban Citizen X want someone to keep the lights on and the buses running until a new guy can come in to kick over the political ant hills. Well, as any Bay Area local can tell you, San Francisco is not like other cities. No, instead we have it written into our extensive City Charter that absent an appointment by a majority of the Board of Supervisors – at least six of the eleven (yes, we also have 11 supervisors for 49sq.miles of City/County) – the sitting President of the Board will inherit the mayoralty as “Acting Mayor”. Because legislators are great at public administration.

In this tale, however, the sitting President David Chiu clearly has an interest in being elected Real Mayor in the fall, and so do a few of the other Supervisors. Getting to play Interim Mayor leading into the elections would give Chiu and [“unfair”] advantage in the campaign, and so the Board was inclined to choose a neutral outsider to manage the position while they all fight for it with all-stars like City Attorney Herrera and ex-Mayor Willie Brown.

And so, after a cascade of increasingly bitter fights amongst the Board members over their preferred candidates – which culminated in Supervisor Daley going stark-mad Hulk status during a televised meeting (accusing Chiu of political sabotage) and proclaiming “It’s on like Donkey Kong!”, and several secretive meetings between Mayor Newsom and other Supes – the Board eventually agreed upon City administrator Ed Lee as the preferred interim mayor. Never mind that he was in Hong Kong at the time on vacation, or that he had just been reappointed for another 5 year term as C.A.; he is legitimately a very nice guy, a good administrator, and ultimately my boss at GSA. Go home team #2!

Lee is now the first Chinese American mayor that this city has ever seen, despite its long and colorful history of strong Chinese communities. Newsom joins Brown is Sac to face difficult challenges with our state budget and a failing legislative process (now over $25 billion in the red), though his job stats seem to have lightened dramatically (see comparison). With a new governor, a new mayor and a new boss at GSA, we may see something of a structural shuffle in the coming months, but we’ll just have to see. Fortunately, I’m on contract, so I can watch from a safe distance and enjoy the education :)

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