P is for power grab

Pub date September 24, 2008
WriterSarah Phelan

› sarah@sfbg.com

Mayor Gavin Newsom wants voters to believe that Proposition P, which seeks to change the size and composition of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (TA) board, will lead to more efficiency and accountability.

But Prop. P’s many opponents — who include all 11 supervisors, all four state legislators from San Francisco, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, the Sierra Club, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, the San Francisco Democratic Party, and the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club — say that the measure would hand over billions of taxpayer dollars to a group of political appointees, thereby removing critical and independent oversight of local transportation projects.

Currently, the Board of Supervisors serves as the governing body of the TA, a small but powerful voter-created authority that acts as a watchdog for the $80 million in local sales tax revenues annually earmarked for transportation projects and administers state and federal transportation funding for new projects.

As such, the TA holds considerable sway over the capital projects of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA), which operates Muni and has a board composed entirely of mayoral appointees. Prop. P would give the mayor more control over all transportation funding, which critics say could be manipulated for political reasons.

As Assemblymember Mark Leno told the Guardian, "This is a system of checks and balances that seems to be working well." And, as Sen. Carole Migden put it, "if it ain’t broke, don’t mess with it."

But if Newsom gets his way and Prop. P passes, the TA’s board will shrink to five elected officials in February — and Newsom will be one of them.

TA executive director José Luis Moscovich told us it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have the mayor on the agency’s governing board. "But that’s different from taking the board from 11 to five members," Moscovich said. "And how would the districts be represented equally?"

Since the TA has only 30 staff members, compared with the MTA’s 6,000 employees, Moscovich finds it hard to see how overhauling his agency would result in greater efficiency.

"Our overhead is 50 percent less than the MTA’s," Moscovich said. "We are subject to all kinds of oversight. This is a sledgehammer to a problem that doesn’t require it."

Tom Radulovich, an elected BART board member and the director of the nonprofit Livable City, believes that personality and policy questions lie at the heart of Newsom’s unilateral decision to place Prop. P on the ballot.

"The mayor doesn’t get along with the Board of Supervisors," Radulovich told us. "The way things stand, the mayor effectively controls the MTA, and the board effectively controls the TA. The mayor would like not to have to deal with the board."

This isn’t the first time a merger has been suggested, and this isn’t even the first time it’s come up this year.

In February, MTA chief Nathaniel Ford suggested the merger, with the MTA in charge. At the time, Newsom was under intense scrutiny for dipping into a million dollars’ worth of MTA funds to pay his staffers’ salaries. He told the San Francisco Chronicle that taking over the TA was not his idea and not something his office planned to pursue.

But shortly after that, Sup. Jake McGoldrick tried and failed to qualify a measure that would have divided the power to nominate members of the MTA’s board between the mayor, the president of the Board of Supervisors, and the city controller.

Newsom retaliated with Prop. P, which would replace the TA board with the mayor, an elected official chosen by the mayor, the president of the Board of Supervisors, an elected official chosen by the board president, and the city treasurer.

While Newsom was honeymooning in Africa, mayoral spokesperson Nathan Ballard turned up the heat by criticizing the supervisors for spending TA funds on routine travel expenses and office supplies.

"I don’t understand why money that is supposed to go to roads is going to couches and cell phones for members of the Board of Supervisors," Ballard told the San Francisco Examiner. But according to public records, Newsom himself charged $14,555 in expenses to the TA while he was a supervisor and a TA board member, from 1997 through 2003.

Jim Sutton, an attorney who served as treasurer in both of Newsom’s mayoral campaigns, has formed a committee to support Prop. P, ironically called Follow the Money.

San Francisco Bicycle Coalition executive director Leah Shahum, whom Newsom appointed to, then fired from, the MTA board last year, said that the TA has a strong record, not only of tracking dollars and winning matching funds at the state and federal levels, but also of making sure that the needs of bicyclists and pedestrians are represented.

"The system we have now is also the most protective of our dollars," Shahum said, noting that the TA is stringent about recipient agencies’ meeting deadlines and keeping costs in check.

Moscovich warned that it’s important that the city quickly move on from the battle over Prop. P, in light of the ongoing financial meltdown on Wall Street and the federal government’s bailout plan.

"This financial tsunami that hasn’t hit us yet will make it harder to borrow money to complete engineering projects," Moscovich predicted. "So it’s important that we get beyond this and show a unified front, so that our credibility as a city is not in danger."