Problems with Peskin’s Muni plan

Pub date July 10, 2007
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

OPINION Last week the Board of Supervisors received a proposed charter amendment that takes a misguided stab at the much-needed reform of the Municipal Transit Agency, which oversees Muni. In undertaking reforms we all agree are needed for the MTA to better serve our city, the supervisors should consider the Hippocratic oath required of doctors: “First, do no harm.”

Our union, Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents almost a thousand MTA workers, has enormous respect for the bill’s sponsor, board president Aaron Peskin. We know that Peskin strongly supports workers’ rights and has always stood for openness, transparency, and accountability in government. This initiative, however, undermines everything that he and his board colleagues stand for, and we urge progressives to oppose it.

Most important, the initiative is profoundly undemocratic and would transfer oversight from an elected body to an appointed one. An MTA that no longer had to answer to our elected representatives would be a less accountable and less transparent board.

Downgrading elected oversight into appointive power resting in the hands of one person — the mayor — is not reform but a political power grab. Commissioners would be well aware that they might not be reappointed if they voted too independently of the mayor’s preferences.

The initiative would present additional risks for the abuse of power in local government by allowing MTA to approve its own contracts. This is a dangerous conflict of interest that would create more opportunities for problems, not reform.

The amendment furthermore would undermine workplace protections by increasing the number of nonunion workers from the current 1.5 percent to a whopping 10 percent. Working people would serve at the pleasure of an unelected board and lose their right to collective bargaining. Seven years ago many members of the Board of Supervisors and progressives strongly opposed a nonunion special assistant position in Mayor Willie Brown’s office. The board converted this position to a civil service job because of the perception of patronage and corruption. The current charter amendment exhumes that political cadaver while hiding behind the fig leaf of flexibility — which in this case is a code word for the power to fire people without just cause or due process, or for political expediency.

On one point we agree with this charter amendment: it’s true that the MTA needs more money to serve our residents the way it should, and this amendment would take $26 million from the General Fund and transfer it to the MTA budget. But we do not believe we should be raiding the General Fund without carefully considering the possible impact.

This is a charter amendment and cannot be easily undone. If it turns out to be a disaster, as we believe it will, San Francisco will find itself in a very dire situation without a timely remedy.

SEIU Local 1021 strongly opposes this charter amendment unless it undergoes major revisions. Sup. Jake McGoldrick’s competing initiative, by contrast, offers us a path that is much more democratic, promotes accountability and transparency in government, and protects the rights of working families. We agree that reform is needed, but if passed, Peskin’s initiative will create many more problems than it purports to solve. *

Damita Davis-Howard and Robert Haaland

Damita Davis-Howard is president of SEIU Local 1021; Robert Haaland is San Francisco political coordinator for the union.