SF supes pass ordinance for greater commissioner protections in wake of mayor's resignation letter 'scandal'

San Francisco Mayor London Breed. October 24, 2022. 

The San Francsico Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance on Tuesday that prohibits the mayor or other city heads from demanding undated letters of resignation from their appointed commissioners, per Mayor London Breed's letter "scandal" last year.  

The ordinance, which was approved 8-2, clearly states that requiring resignation letters is against city policy, and that the decision to resign cannot be decided by an appointing authority, like the Board of Supervisors, the mayor, the district attorney or any other city official. The ordinance does not bar an authority from removing a commissioner. 

The ordinance came about after Police Commissioner Max Carter-Oberstone alleged that he was directed to turn in an undated resignation letter upon his reappointment, seemingly a requirement. He alleged that mayoral staff threatened him by referring to the letter during a heated debate on the city's policies on "pretextual stops," which allow police to stop people for low-level offenses for other investigations. 

After rescinding his letter last August, he said the letter was an "end-run" around the city's charter, and gave Breed "carte blanche" to unilaterally remove him. 

An October hearing at a Government Audit and Oversight Committee meeting revealed that dozens of other mayoral appointees were asked to submit resignation letters as well. 

Supervisor Dean Preston, known for being outspoken against the mayor's policy, called the practice a "scandal," one that has secretly defied city law for years. He's previously called for an emergency hearing in October, submitted a formal letter of inquiry and authored the now-approved ordinance.  

"I believe strongly that no commissioner protected from at-will termination should be under the implied or actual threat that they can be summarily removed for exercising their independent judgment," Preston said. "Such an approach is inconsistent with our charter's removal provisions, and allowing this would threaten the independence of commissioners." 

Backing Preston on Tuesday was supervisors Myrna Melgar, Aaron Peskin, Hillary Ronen, Ahsha Safai, Matt Dorsey, Connie Chan and Joel Engardio. 

Ronen said the city spends too much money, time and effort to operate entities based on independent oversight from San Francisco citizens. If a mayor can just immediately remove someone because of a disagreement, then it "obviates" the great expenses that the city puts into this priority, she said. 

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"Either we want this independent citizen oversight, or we don't, and that's a that's something we can debate, said Ronen. "But if we want the oversight, then it should be truly independent, otherwise, this is just a waste of everyone's time, money and bother." 

Safai said he is support of a strong executive branch, but there have to be rules in place to keep the check and balances system truly balanced.  

"To start off with being asked to resign if something were to go wrong, I think really sets the wrong tone," said Safai. 

Engardio added that the ordinance avoids the legal ambiguity under the code, which said a resignation letter is effective at the it is received by an appointing authority. 

"My vote today is not a statement about mayoral power, but a statement about the independence of commissioners, whether they're appointed by the mayor or the board," said Engardio. "It's about what good governments should look like. Commissioners and members of city boards ultimately serve the people of San Francisco." 

Mayoral staff previously stated that Breed asked for these letters in the event of a serious crisis or wrongdoing, citing the 2013 case of former port commissioner Mel Murphy refusing to resign after ethics charges.  

Mandelman, who voted against the ordinance alongside Supervisor Catherine Stefani, considered the policy "absolutely unnecessary," as the letters were deemed ineffective by the city attorney. He referred to the ordinance as a "slap to the mayor," when she was not "all that wrong in the first place." 

"I don't think it was a terrible thing that the mayor sought these letters, especially in regard to important bodies that oversee important departments that are charged with carrying out the mayor's policy," Mandelman said. "It is reasonable for her to maintain or try to maintain some level of direction or control over those departments."