San Francisco Mayor Breed held to task over resignation letters at emergency hearing

A contentious, emergency hearing was held Tuesday to examine the mayor of San Francisco's request for appointees to sign undated letters of resignation before their appointments.

District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston called the practice of requesting signed, undated resignation letters "improper" and "troubling." He said if any official other than Mayor London Breed had engaged in such practice, they would likely be facing official misconduct charges.

Preston is head of the San Francisco Government Audit And Oversight Committee Meeting, which held the hearing Tuesday morning at City Hall. Preston said the mayor’s office turned over paperwork when they inquired about the practice. They found out of roughly 400 appointments, 48 people were asked to sign the letters with no explanation as to why they were singled out.

Breed’s Chief of Staff Sean Elsbernd answered questions on her behalf. He did not go into details about what was explained to appointees, or if any them questioned what they were asked to do. He said the request was never mandatory.

"The mayor clearly had a subjective standard here," he said. "Sometimes she directed it. Sometimes she did not."

Elsbernd acknowledged the concerns that the practice could create the perception of a lack of transparency, but said factually that never was the case. He said requesting signed undated resignation letters was to prevent a holdup of removing someone who refused to resigned or went "AWOL." The letters were reserved for the most dire situations of inappropriate behavior or dereliction of duty.

But Preston said the city charter has a process is in place to remove someone who is in violation of their duties.

Elsbernd used examples of a port commissioner in 2015 who was under investigation and refused to resign for months. In another case, he said a woman on a community advisory committee in the Bayview District went missing and could not be found. Each were used to the show instances in which Breed would potentially expedite someone’s removal without going through the slow process of the city charter.

The mayor has since ended the practice, after the city attorney gave an opinion on the matter, which said the practice was un-enforceable.

"I think we can read between the lines and put two and two together and understand the mayor was trying to exert control over her appointed commissioners," Preston said. "All those letters have been rescinded. Every commissioner knows know they are not under threat if they don't agree with the mayor."

The issue came to light when Police Commissioner Max Carter-Oberstone spoke out about this experience. He signed a letter and later rescinded it after he was asked to make a public comment on an issue he did not agree with. SF Standard first reported this story. 

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"As the city attorney makes clear…this practice does pose a direct threat to our charter and system of government," he said.

Carter-Oberstone, an attorney, said he took an oath to defend the constitution when he assumed his duties as a police commissioner. He said despite the tension created with the mayor after he spoke out, he continues to look forward to working with her and her office on any issues that may arise.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen commended Carter-Oberstone for sharing his experience with the committee at the hearing.

"If commissioners don't come forward, there's no way to know what these conversations look like behind the scenes," Ronen said. "I call it disappointing. It's another example of this era of toxic politics."

Preston said he's working to draft legislation that would explicitly ban the practice.

When the story broke, the mayor's office said the resignation letters were reserved for the "most dire situations of inappropriate behavior or dereliction of duties." The mayor's office said over the last four years, the letters have never been invoked or used in any way.