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Saturday, July 20, 2002

A Source at City Hall

one person's comments on politics in San Francisco



On the Elections Commission, Tammy Haygood & the November election

I am writing this long email after watching last night's Elections Commission. It is hard not to be pessimistic when you watch this group in action. The key problem to date has been the constant interference from Mayor Willie Brown in its operations, since he won the 1995 mayoral race. During the first few months of Brown's term the Independent ran a story about how Brown approached city departments, and it described him as "an animal who needs to control everything." This is particularly true with respect to the Department of Elections.

I have been observing Elections Commission meetings since January, hoping they would remove Haygood and then conduct a national search to find a qualified director. San Francisco needs a director who understands the mechanics of the job, is honest, and has the backbone to stand down political interference. As a society, I think we can still produce folks like that. Those were my goals when I supported Proposition E in November 2001.

There were many stops and starts on firing Haygood on the commission's part. They had ample goods to give her the public firing she and the public deserve. The fourth vote for her removal did not materialize until April when mayoral appointee David Serrano Sewell indirectly threatened the job of Public Defender Kimiko Burton's appointee Alix Rosenthal's job at a downtown law firm. That, combined with Jeff Adachi's victory over Kimiko Burton, helped end Rosenthal's indecision about whether or not to fire Haygood. She was the 4th vote. Hallinan's appointment Michael Mendelson was the third vote, and there is a little story worth telling on how that vote materialized. Mendelson's vote to fire Haygood was secured in a deal that made him commission president in exchange for then-commission president Tom Schulz's resignation. Schulz, Shadoian, Mendelson, and Rosenthal voted to fire Haygood.

Last night the Elections Commission removed Board of Education appointee Richard Shadoian as vice president. Every member of the public testified on his behalf, but it didn't matter; they canned him anyway. During the most significant part of the commission deliberations, Board of Supervisors appointee Tom Schulz literally turned his chair around so his back was to the public.

However, that wasn't all that was on offer last night. Their true feelings about the public were most apparent in the debate over the CACE – this is the Citizens Advisory Committee on Elections. It's purely an advisory body and hardly radical. Alix Rosenthal made a motion, seconded by Robert Kenealy (Louise Renne's 11th-hour appointee to the commission) to disband this eleven-member body. Proposition E changed the CACE makeup so those who are paid by political campaigns cannot serve on it. But its purpose is to serve as a forum for interested members of the public, a mediator of sorts between the agency and the public. It's a place where information is exchanged, advice is given and taken. The mayor gets five appointments. To date, Brown has not filled his slots because he does not want it to meet. The BOS gets six appointments, which have been named. A member of the audience, Kay Burke, pointed out that it was beyond the powers of the Elections Commission to disband this body. After that point of information, they changed the resolution's language to merely recommend its dissolution. It passed 4-2. Citizen participation in government ought to be encouraged, and it shows what poor judgment our elected officials used in naming a commission that is hostile to public input. We can't blame Willie Brown for this one, since his commissioner resigned a month ago.

There were other major gaffes at last night's meeting. Again, Rosenthal, who serves as Chair of Finance Committee of the Elections Commission, was asked to give an update on the financial status of the department, and she reported that she did not know. Members of the audience who have watched Channel 26 Finance Committee meetings knew more. Since firing Haygood the commission has done nothing to set up a process to conduct a national search to find a qualified director. They are spending time worrying about who is commission president, vice president, and trying to find ways to shut down public input but ignoring their most basic responsibility. From April through the month of June, the word from the commission was that they could only pick choices from the original 2001 Civil Service Commission list from which Haygood was chosen. That list expired in June. Since that time the wrangling with the Civil Service Commission has dominated events.

Unless Haygood prevails in court, there will be a new director. If it is someone chosen from within the department (e.g. John Arntz), it's unlikely to be a competent professional since most of the qualified people were forced out because they could not stand the political pressure. If staff have been promoted within the department since 1995, the criteria for promotion were likely to be a good political nose rather than any kind of professional competence. I can't stress enough the negative role City Administrator Bill Lee has played in ruining the operations of this department. Lee peddles his capacity to influence events at DOE to Willie Brown as the primary justification for his continuance as city administrator. The 1996 Charter stripped the city administrator of all its other major responsibilities.

Guardian editorials like the one this week are extremely helpful. But at this point in the story we need to move beyond firing Haygood and think seriously about replacement. There is a great story out there that needs writing, in terms of trying to find out what selection process other Bay Area counties use when choosing a director. San Francisco pays its director on the order of $10K per month, and so it should not be impossible to find talent. It might be interesting to know what Jay Paterson, Germaine Wong, and Naomi Nishioka think of what has gone wrong with DOE and what we can do to change that. In short, our political allies at the BOS, the new public defender Jeff Adachi once he takes office in January, and District Attorney Terence Hallinan need to start asking their respective commission members "What is going on?" "What are you doing to get a national search under way for a competent director?" "Why are you hostile to citizen participation at DOE?" “Will the City be ready for its November election?" I am disappointed that something as basic as a well-functioning elections department is so hard to achieve.