Lee appoints Santos, a staunch development advocate, to CCSF board

Rodrigo Santos, a structural engineer who heads the pro-development advocacy group San Francisco Coalition for Responsible Growth, had already raised an unheard of amount of money in his race for the City College of San Francisco Board of Trustees, $113,153 in just six months, mostly from real estate and development interests.

Today, he got another big boost when Mayor Ed Lee appointed Santos to fill the vacancy on that board created by the recent death of Milton Marks, giving the ambitious Santos a big advantage in the fall contest and perhaps signaling Lee’s support for making deep program cuts to satisfy the accrediting commission’s demand that CCSF cut expenditures and beef up its reserves.

“Tough decisions and reform are what City College needs at this time,” Lee said at a press conference this afternoon, calling Santos “someone who shares my vision of reform and will support the tough decisions ahead.”

Although Lee said Santos “is committed and passionate about education,” Santos hasn’t been active on education issues before running for this office. His passions seem to lie mostly with advocating for developers and opposing government regulations in front of the Planning Commission and other bodies, where he regularly testifies, and in helping fellow conservatives gain power on city boards and commissions.

The appointment continues Lee’s pattern of appointing and relying on controversial conservatives in key areas, from his chief fundraiser and economic adviser, venture capitalist Ron Conway, to his recent reappointment to the Planning Commission of Republican Michael Antonini, who gave Santos the maximum $500 contribution in his CCSF race.

“I join an institution that must be saved. I am absolutely committed to that goal,” Santos told a press conference in the Mayor’s Office. He said that he will work to “achieve consensus” around solutions to the troubled institution’s problems, while also declaring, “We must support the interim chancellor, Pamila Fisher.”

But rather than someone who seeks political compromise, Santos’ reputation is as more of polarizing and ideologically conservative firebrand who regularly criticizes government and progressives as part of the downtown alliance that includes Plan C, Committee on Jobs, Building Owners and Managers Association, the SF Chamber of Commerce, and the Board of Realtors PAC

“I actually find him to be pretty divisive in trying to work on issues at [the Department of Building Inspection],” Debra Walker, who served with Santos on the Building Inspection Commission. “He always seems to come into a situation attacking and I hope he doesn’t bring that to this board.”

Walker, a longtime progressive activist and former supervisorial candidate, said that she and her political allies have long endured nasty attacks from Santos and his CRG bretheren.

“They spend all of their time attacking progressives and he gets pretty intense about attacking rather than working with people,” she said. “CRG is about getting people elected who are conservative, that’s their whole reason for existence, perpetuating the real estate industry’s impact of city policies, which has had a negative impact on the middle class.”

Asked about that reputation by the Guardian, both Lee and Santos denied it and refused to answer follow-up questions. Santos said CRG has a “diverse membership” and told us, “I don’t know why you would cast that as polarizing.”

Yet its board is made up almost exclusively of real estate and development interests who have shown themselves to be politically ambitious, winning key mayoral appointments to the Building Inspection and Small Business commissions and working with mayoral staffers to hold onto key leadership positions, edging out supervisorial appointees in the process.

Sup. John Avalos, who was targeted by a CRG independent expenditure campaign in 2008, said that he researched Santos’ background on education issues and was a little surprised not to find anything. “More than anything, the appointment says more about Lee’s pro business leanings,” Avalos told us.

It was also telling that Lee included two of the most conservative CCSF trustees in his press conference, Natalie Berg and Anita Grier, but that more liberal trustees Chris Jackson and John Rizzo were neither consulted nor notified directly about the appointment. “I’m sorry the mayor didn’t involve us more or let us know,” Rizzo told us.

While Rizzo didn’t endorse Santos – instead backing Jackson, Steve Ngo, and Rafael Mandelman (who Rizzo said “really does have the best interests of the district at heart”) – he didn’t want to offer an opinion on Santos, saying that he wants to work constructively with him to solve the district’s problems: “I welcome him to the board and hope he will welcome the work we’ve been doing.”

Santos told reporters that he starts every work day with an “open house” at his office from 5:20-8am, discussing various issues with anyone who wants to stop by, before getting into his engineering and administrative work for his firm, Santos & Urrutia. “I will bring that same commitment to City College,” he pledged.