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Mayor Breed may have to stop making appointees sign secret, undated resignation letters

Illustration by Lu Chen/The Standard

A political rival to London Breed wants to strip the mayor of her ability to compel city commissioners to sign secret, undated resignation letters as a condition of their appointments after The Standard exposed the practice Friday.

Supervisor Dean Preston says such agreements appear to run afoul of San Francisco Charter language requiring the formation of certain commissions as independent checks on executive power, and that he will press for legislation to explicitly outlaw the practice.

“There is no place for that kind of conduct,” Preston said of the resignation letters, which the Mayor’s Office acknowledged after The Standard discovered a copy of one among documents produced in response to a broader public records request. “It's extremely concerning if this happens once. And if it's a pattern, or a practice, it's even more concerning.”

Following a public dispute in which Breed denounced one of her Police Commission appointees as “a liar” for not supporting her choice for commission president, The Standard filed a request under the city’s Sunshine Ordinance for emails and other records underlying the spat.

Among the resulting documents were emails in which a Breed staffer had instructed Police Commissioner Max Carter-Oberstone to sign and return a so-called “draft” letter of resignation. 

Under the City Charter, the mayor gets to appoint four members of the Police Commission, and the Board of Supervisors appoints three. The mayor cannot remove her own nominees without the consent of the board.

The Police Commission sets policy for the department, decides whether to impose serious discipline against officers and even has the power to unilaterally fire the police chief. 

Breed spokesman Jeff Cretan said Carter-Oberstone isn’t alone in having been directed to sign such a letter. Cretan would not reveal how many commissioners, nor which ones, had been pressed to sign undated letters of resignation, which he said reflect the mayor’s desire for commissioners to take their jobs seriously.

“The letter is representative of that commitment and reserved for the most dire situations of inappropriate behavior or dereliction of duties,” he said.

Cretan did not respond to a request for comment on the proposed legislation.

Breed is not the first mayor to expect loyalty from appointed commissioners.

“It’s not a new phenomenon. Willie Brown did it. Gavin Newsom did it. Ed Lee did it,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin, chair of the board committee that oversees commission appointments.

But Peskin said he’d never heard of an appointee having to prematurely file a resignation letter in San Francisco.

Preston and Supervisor Hillary Ronen said Breed’s tactic for keeping appointees in check goes too far.

“It is not appropriate for the Mayor to require open resignation letters from her Commissioners,” Ronen said in a tweet, calling it “a disturbing practice that calls into [question] the independence of all Mayoral appointees.”

Ronen said she would support Preston’s legislation.

Preston, for his part, said he would ask the city attorney to draft language for legislation that—in addition to banning the practice—would void any draft resignation letters signed by any mayoral appointee.

He also plans to hold a hearing on the matter to find out more about how widespread the practice is.

Michael Barba can be reached at mbarba@sfstandard.com