Newsom’s fixers

Pub date January 29, 2008
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL Mayor Gavin Newsom is acting more and more like his predecessor, Willie Brown. It’s an alarming trend, and Newsom needs to take some steps right away to assure the public that he’s not letting political fixers run the city.

We’ve been seeing signs that Newsom is becoming more of an imperial mayor for months, ever since he launched his new administration with a demand that all of the department heads and commissioners resign. The idea, he said, was to bring a fresh start and new ideas to his second term — but he never explained exactly what those new ideas were or why the current city officials weren’t living up to them. And it was clear that some of his moves were motivated by nothing but politics: ousting Susan Leal as head of the Public Utilities Commission had nothing to do with her job performance and everything to do with the fact that she had been willing to challenge Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s power monopoly.

The shenanigans continue. As Sarah Phelan reported on last week, Newsom just attempted a coup at the Planning Commission, moving behind the scenes to oust Christina Olague, a progressive appointed by the supervisors, from her post as vice president. Newsom and his crew wanted to install his loyalists, Sue Lee and Mike Antonini, as president and vice president of the panel.

That move, sources told us, was orchestrated through Dean Macris, the former planning director who needs to get the hell out of that department. Macris still has his fingers firmly planted in the planning pie; he maintains an office in the department as a "liaison to the mayor."

The mayor has also managed to pad his own office’s budget while cutting key city services — and has, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported Jan. 25, used funny accounting to divert money from Muni to the Mayor’s Office payroll. And he continues to use the San Francisco International Airport as a place to put highly paid employees who have, at best, unclear job descriptions.

This is the sort of thing that led to Brown’s downfall: the voters, infuriated by backroom deals, voted nearly all of Brown’s allies out of office in 2000 and elected a Board of Supervisors that had a mandate to block the mayor’s worst initiatives.

Newsom has always insisted he’s a different type of politician than his predecessor and onetime mentor, and his future political career will depend on his ability to make that image stick. Brown’s reputation for corruption was the main reason he never had any hope of seeking or winning a statewide office.

If Newsom wants to avoid that fate, he can start with a few significant changes:

<\!s>Knock off the secrecy and sleaze. If Newsom has a reason to replace a department head or commissioner — and there are good reasons to fire a bunch of them — he needs to make that public. If someone isn’t carrying out his policies, fine: explain what the policies are and where he and the official in question part ways. Don’t pull out the knives and do the dirty work of PG&E and the developers behind closed doors.

<\!s>Be open about the jobs and the money. If the mayor really believes he needs a bunch of new $150,000-per-year aides, fine: take that money out of the General Fund and tell the public where it’s coming from. Budgets are displays of political priorities, especially in tight years, and the voters have a right to know what the mayor cares about most.

<\!s>Keep the operatives out of City Hall. Brown had lobbyists and consultants cutting deals in room 200 almost every day. Newsom needs to make it clear that campaign advisors aren’t making policy or personnel decisions.

We have four more years of Newsom to go, and if he keeps up this kind of crap, he’s going to find himself fighting the board — and the voters — at every step.