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Politics & Policy

SF supervisor’s request to use city seal opens up a surprising can of worms

A smiling man in a black jacket stands in front of a wall with waterfalls.
District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey | Vita Hewitt

San Francisco Supervisor Matt Dorsey is making a formal request for the use of the San Francisco city seal for use on jackets worn by his staff. But the seemingly anodyne request has raised some only-in-San-Francisco worries—some political, others historical. 

Dorsey, who represents the city’s South of Market and Mid-Market neighborhoods, wants the jackets for himself and staffers for wear in public where visibility is desired but usual business attire may not be optimal, such as neighborhood cleanups. 

“Like the ambassador programs, it’s important that when we’re out in the community that people see us. [...] I think people appreciate seeing the visibility of city services,” Dorsey told The Standard in an interview. 

“One of the things I really like about my team is we like to get out and do a weekend cleanup; in some ways, that’s my favorite part of the job,” he added.  

The idea of visibility jackets for politicians and their staffers isn’t exactly unprecedented.  

A look around the country will reveal politicians routinely out in the field wearing activewear emblazoned with city, county or state seals. 

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, left, wears a city seal jacket as Gov. Gavin Newsom listens on during a press conference at Petco Park in San Diego on Feb. 8, 2021. | Sandy Huffaker/AFP via Getty Images

As a supervisor and later as mayor, Dianne Feinstein was known to keep a firefighter’s turnout coat in the trunk of her car in case she had to go to the scene of a fire. 

But reactions from other members of the Board of Supervisors were mixed. Supervisor Myrna Melgar favored the idea, saying “it may make us all feel like a team.” But District 11 member Ahsha Safaí told The Standard he had no plans to buy any.  

Use of the city seal is tightly controlled by the city’s Administrative Code, Section 1.6, and certain aspects of the city’s political history have made some feel wary of using it. 

Normally, authorizing use of the city seal is done ministerially by the Clerk of the Board of Supervisors, who generally requires a detailed proposal of where and how it’s being used. But in this case, Dorsey submitted actual legislation—a resolution that will be heard by the board next week. 

“Actually, if I’m being honest, I’m surprised that it has to go through this process,” Dorsey said. “This is something you wear on duty. If you resign and go on to another thing, we don’t want anybody out there representing themselves in an official capacity when they’re not in one.” 

That concern was at the top of Board President Aaron Peskin’s mind when he spoke with The Standard. 

“As far as I’m concerned, the whole thing is a recipe for unnecessary trouble,” Peskin said, adding that he was “worried about people with city seals on their jackets doing silly stuff.”

That “silly stuff” could range from using the seal for political campaigning to simply being seen in public engaging in inappropriate personal behavior while wearing it. 

San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, right, wearing a county seal jacket, with San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, left, listen as Gov. Gavin Newsom, middle, speaks at a press conference at Petco Park in San Diego on Feb. 8, 2021. | Sandy Huffaker/AFP via Getty Images

Supervisors and other officials like commissioners are entitled to have special insignia, such as police-style wallet badges or lapel pins. Whether they obtain and use them is often up to individual discretion. It might seem overly officious, but they can come in handy.

One City Hall veteran noted that supervisors, in the past, had used their badges for contingencies like stopping traffic for an animal crossing, or to cross a police line to be present at an incident in their districts. They never heard about any cases of misuse.

But emblazoning the city seal on apparel may compel another issue—one of personal safety. 

San Francisco’s recent political history includes acts of violence, including the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978, and elected officials like state Sen. Scott Wiener and Supervisor Shamann Walton have received physical threats over local issues that become national controversies. 

In that context, a simple team jacket can become a political balancing act—one that Dorsey is confident he can handle. 

“I mean, I wouldn't wear it on vacation,” Dorsey told The Standard. “I think it's important that people see that their city government is out with them in the neighborhood, and [...] it gives us a chance to dress down sometimes, but still look like we're at work.”