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Politics & Policy

Does Mayor Breed have too much control over City Hall? Ban on undated resignation letters stokes debate

Mayor London Breed speaks at a press conference in San Francisco City Hall on Aug. 4, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Controversy over Mayor London Breed asking her appointees to sign undated resignation letters in a perceived attempt to control them hasn’t convinced a city lawmaker that San Francisco should ban the practice.

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman on Monday came out against the ban proposed by his colleague Dean Preston, saying he didn’t have a problem with the practice depending on what role the commission plays in city government.

He said he’s “not terribly offended” by Breed looking for an easier way to remove an appointee who was not doing what she wanted.

“When I think about the problems San Francisco is facing right now, I’m not seeing an excess of executive mayoral authority,” Mandelman said. “In fact, I see a government that seems incredibly disunified, running through a number of commissions that, you know, seem to be quite independent.”

Mandelman was the only supervisor at a committee hearing to oppose the ban in a 2-1 vote advising the full board to adopt the ordinance. Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Connie Chan supported the ban.

His comments fit into a larger debate over whether the mayor wields too much control over city government through her appointees on powerful bodies that oversee everything from planning decisions to emergency services.

Mandelman’s comments come months after The Standard exposed the previously secret practice and spurred Preston to propose the ban. Public records unearthed by The Standard revealed that Breed asked about 50 appointees on a range of city commissions to sign the legally questionable draft letters.

The revelations raised concerns that Breed was assaulting the independence of mayoral appointees by gathering the undated letters to one day be used against them. Under local law, she can’t remove many of her appointees on her own without the consent of the Board of Supervisors.

Breed ended the practice in response to the news. But her staff maintained that the letters were not about influencing votes and were reserved for extreme cases such as a commissioner abandoning their post.

While Mandelman didn’t see the practice as an overstep, Peskin said previous mayors exerting too much control over appointees by telling them how to vote has sown distrust in city government.

Peskin said appointees should feel free to vote with a “conscience.”

“The exercise—particularly in quasi-judicial bodies—of independence, I think, is paramount,” Peskin said.

Among those protected from unilateral removal by the mayor are members of the Police Commission. One commissioner said he thought the draft letter he filed could be used against him if he crossed Breed.

Mandelman argued that the mayor should get to control who sits on the Police Commission because public safety is a top concern in San Francisco, and the city looks to Breed for answers.

The mayor appoints four of the seven members on the police oversight panel, but can only remove them with consent of the Board of Supervisors.

He also argued that the ban was pointless since the letters could not be enforced in the first place. The City Attorney’s Office previously found that the letters were inconsistent with local law and would not hold up in court if used.

Preston said he was disappointed by Mandelman’s position. Even Breed ended the practice in response to the revelations.

“I think this is the kind of backroom [approach] and potential manipulation of commissioners that really stands in the way of change and leads people to lose faith in government,” Preston said.

Preston said the mayor could still call on her appointees to resign or ask the Board of Supervisors to agree to their removal, depending on the commission.

His problem with the letters was Breed seeking to skirt that process.

“You don’t get to just ignore all those rules, require an undated resignation letter that sits on your desk that you can file whenever a commissioner does something that you don't approve of,” he said.

The full board will vote on the ban at a later date.

Michael Barba can be reached at mbarba@sfstandard.com