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Politics & Policy

San Francisco supervisors take on robocars, traffic deaths

The interior of a cannabis shop with customers and employees
A customer makes a purchase at the Russian Hill Cannabis Club in San Francisco on Jan. 25, 2023. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

After hecklers shut down a chaotic open-air hearing on Mayor London Breed’s drug enforcement policies Tuesday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors reconvened indoors and called for more scrutiny of street traffic enforcement and the shelter-in-place hotel program and voted down a permit for an autonomous vehicle fleet garage.

The board voted to urge outside examination of the evidence in the fatal shooting of Banko Brown, but only after that call was rendered moot by state Attorney General Rob Bonta’s announcement that he would do just that. And a call for federal assistance in the drug fight was sent back to committee.

Wonks can peruse this week’s meeting’s whole kit and caboodle in the agenda.

Mayor London Breed crosses a street with her colleagues.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed walks back to City Hall following a brief meeting at U.N. Plaza on Tuesday. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

Breed Calls for Tougher Drug Policies

After hecklers cut short a special edition of mayoral Question Time at United Nations Plaza on the city’s drug problems and Breed’s plans for combating them, the mayor and the board reconvened in the relative safety of the board chambers in City Hall.

Board President Aaron Peskin, who had intended the U.N. Plaza setting as an appropriate venue for questioning Breed on the fentanyl crisis, reiterated his central question: Would Breed commit to opening an emergency operations center to coordinate local and regional agencies involved in combating open-air drug markets?

Peskin compared the proposed effort to the emergency operations center the city ran during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic that was staffed not only by representatives of the Mayor’s Office and city departments but supervisors as well.

Rather than committing to the idea, Breed urged the board to pass her public safety budget and to cease “micromanaging” departments. She said the police “get disrespected and treated like a punching bag” by the board.

Breed also alluded to a pilot program that would allow for enforcement of public intoxication laws and “an important meeting” with Police Chief Bill Scott, District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, U.S. Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Attorney Ismail Ramsey aimed at moving new policies forward. However, she was “not at liberty to speak on the details,” she said.

A triptych showing District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, Banko Brown and Attorney General Rob Bonta
San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, left; Banko Brown, center; and California Attorney General Rob Bonta, right | The Standard

Bonta Gets Ahead of Board on Banko Brown Case 

The board unanimously passed a resolution urging state or federal agencies to review evidence in the controversial Banko Brown case, where a Walgreens security guard fatally shot a Black trans activist over alleged shoplifting. San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins declined to charge the security guard.

The vote was made moot by the state attorney general’s decision Tuesday to review the case.

The resolution included an amendment by Supervisor Joel Engardio to remove language that could present a bias.

“It’s important to note the possibility that the state attorney general could review the case and come to the same legal conclusion as our district attorney,” Engardio said, noting Bonta’s decision in the police shooting of Keita O’Neil, where Jenkins dropped charges in March.

Meanwhile, Supervisor Matt Dorsey asked to send his resolution supporting Pelosi’s appeal to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to add San Francisco to the DEA’s Operation Overdrive back to committee.

The resolution “probably merits more consideration though the committee process and the opportunity for public comment,” Dorsey said.

The DEA describes Operation Overdrive as “a data-driven, intelligence-led approach to identify and dismantle criminal drug networks operating in areas with the highest rates of violence and overdoses.” Launched in February 2022 in 34 cities in 23 states, the program has recently been credited with 53 arrests on drug and violence charges and the recovery of 50 guns in Columbus, Ohio, as well as multiple arrests and the seizure of 10,000 fentanyl pills in Atlanta.

Cars on a road wet by rain
Cars drive through the intersection of Fremont and Howard streets in San Francisco in February. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

Traffic Enforcement Inquiry

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman announced his office would send a letter of inquiry to the police department on another persistent and deadly problem in the city: the decline in traffic enforcement and its relationship to the city’s repeated failure to meet Vision Zero traffic safety goals.

Last year saw the most traffic deaths in any year since 2014, when the city adopted its Vision Zero policy, following other major cities in a goal to eliminate all traffic fatalities.

Mandelman wants police to describe challenges to restoring traffic enforcement to 2014 levels and for a timeline for returning to that level of service, focusing on the most common causes of collisions and injuries.

Police issued only 10 citations per day in 2022, compared with 350 per day in 2014, and 117 per day in 2019, according to data analysis by street safety advocate Stephen Braitsch.

“The city’s failure to make good on Vision Zero over the last decade is closely linked to the steep decline in traffic enforcement,” Mandelman said. ”If it feels like there’s no traffic enforcement in San Francisco, it’s because there’s no traffic enforcement in San Francisco.” 

A robotaxi speeding down a street
A Waymo car drives along a San Francisco street in March. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images | Source: Justin Sullivan/ Getty Images

Robocar Garage Voted Down

The board unanimously voted down a conditional use authorization awarded by the Planning Commission to a project at 301 Toland St. that would let the autonomous vehicle service Waymo use a private parking garage.

The permit was appealed by Mark Gleason, a retired Teamsters union official, who has alleged that Waymo plans to use the site for automated “last mile” parcel delivery services, as implied by a recently announced partnership between the robocar company and ride-hail company Uber.

It’s a question on the Teamsters’ and supervisors’ radars, out of concerns over driver jobs and increased traffic congestion. The board passed legislation last year tightening controls over parcel delivery sites amid questions raised by a planned Amazon warehouse in SoMa.

The supervisors’ ability to regulate autonomous vehicles is hamstrung by state law, but that hasn’t stopped them from testing new strategies to curb robocars.

Last week, Supervisor Connie Chan announced she was asking the city attorney to draft legislation adding robocars to the list of zoning uses related to package delivery.

More Scrutiny on Shelter-in-Place Hotels

Dorsey requested a hearing on San Francisco’s use of shelter-in-place (SIP) hotels, pointing to the latest damage claim from a hotel owner set to be reviewed by the board. If approved, the liability claims would top $50 million.

“I am not interested in recriminations over whether we should’ve had SIP hotels,” Dorsey said. “We as a city made important and bold and necessary decisions at the onset of Covid-19, and in large part, these decisions saved lives. Still, I think there are important lessons to learn.”

Owners of the Hotel Whitcomb filed a claim on April 13 for $19.5 million for damages incurred while the hotel was leased under the Covid-era shelter-in-place hotel program. 

The city has already approved $25 million in claims for a range of hotels. The controller predicted a total of $26 million in claims. The Federal Emergency Management Agency may reimburse the costs while the city anticipates a whopper budget deficit.

City Attorney David Chiu said the Hotel Whitcomb claim “represents an appropriate resolution and is the last SIP Hotel claim for damages that the City is aware of.”

Before adjourning the meeting, Peskin offered a rebuttal to Breed’s earlier remarks on the board’s treatment of city employees and departments.

“I think that in everything that I see—and yes, we do have a duty to ask questions—the way you treat city staff and department heads […] is respectful and professional, and I just want to state that for the record,” Peskin said.