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Future of SFPD leadership in balance as police watchdog seeks new term

Police Commission President Cindy Elias attends a commission meeting on June 6, 2018. | SFGovTV

With the balance of power shifting on public safety in San Francisco, one city lawmaker is trying to secure a reform candidate’s seat on a panel that can reshape the future of policing.

With more than four months left in her term, Police Commission President Cindy Elias is asking for another four years. Normally, that request would come closer to the term’s end on April 30.

But Supervisor Aaron Peskin wants to get a head start. As chair of the committee overseeing her reappointment, he put the item on Monday’s agenda.

“We have a good Police Commission that is going about sensible reforms in a sophisticated, transparent, inclusive way,” Peskin said. “I want to stay on that track. I think that the current president, who recently won her election, is doing a great job and I want to send a signal that it’s our intent to keep her there.”

Peskin appears to be getting ahead of a political shift next month when Joel Engardio gets sworn in to the Board of Supervisors. At least when it comes to policing, Engardio is expected to be one of two new allies of Mayor London Breed on the board, alongside Supervisor Matt Dorsey.

That could spell trouble for Elias, since Breed has publicly accused the Police Commission of putting reform over public safety. Breed was also upset that her appointee Larry Yee lost to Elias in the bid to be president.

Peskin said he’s not trying to ram her reappointment through. He expects the full Board of Supervisors to vote on the matter next Tuesday and again in January after Engardio’s inauguration.

The Mayor’s Office accused Peskin of trying to “circumvent the public process” with a surprise early vote.

“This puts the politics ahead of the governance, and that’s what they always do,” Breed spokesperson Jeff Cretan said.

Cretan said having the vote now could cut out applicants for the seat who did not think they needed to apply for the job so early. There is only one other applicant in the running so far, Terence Tracy, a union representative for retired California Highway Patrol officers.

Breed has no plan to remove Elias, he added. How the mayor feels about Elias is irrelevant, he said, because she’s not on the Board of Supervisors and doesn’t control most of the board’s members.

Peskin said the Mayor’s Chief of Staff, Sean Elsbernd, made clear that Breed would prefer that Elias not get another term.

But Cretan said the mayor has not taken a position on Elias.

Much more is at stake than the career of one commissioner.

A key function of the Police Commission is its ability to choose the field of candidates whom the mayor can appoint as police chief.

If Chief Bill Scott steps down or for some reason loses his job, Breed would choose his replacement from candidates selected by the commission. And Scott has already served longer than the average chief.

Breed has already lost some of the support that most mayors enjoy on the powerful body. While the mayor gets to nominate four members to the panel who typically vote in line with the executive branch, one of the commissioners Breed chose, Max Carter-Oberstone, publicly split from her.

The rift revealed that Breed asked her appointees on commissions across city government to sign undated resignation letters in what became a scandal for the mayor. It also exposed that potential leadership changes at SFPD were top of mind for Breed, although she denied wanting to fire Scott.

The vote next week could spur some debate at the Rules Committee.

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, one of its members, said he was befuddled by the decision to schedule the vote early.

“It would appear that there is an interest in having this voted on by the current board rather than the full board in January,” Mandelman said.

Mandelman said he is unsure whether he would support Elias, and would prefer to give the board more time to discuss the issues. Like Breed, he emphasized the need for a focus on both reform and public safety.

“I’m not sure why we are considering this now,” he said. “I would need to be persuaded that there is urgency and that we need to take action on this now.”

For his part, Engardio said the process should not be "rushed” and also focused on his desire to increase public safety.

“There is plenty of time in the new year with a new board to consider a range of candidates who will best serve the needs of residents,” Engardio said. “I would like the opportunity for thorough due diligence on this appointment.”

Michael Barba can be reached at