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Elsbernd Muni Reform Measure Has Money and Signatures to Spare

Supervisor Elsbernd displays his abundance of signatures.Supervisor Elsbernd displays his abundance of signatures. Photo: Matt Baume.
Supervisor Sean Elsbernd triumphantly delivered eighteen Bankers Boxes full of signatures to the Department of Elections on Thursday, signifying the successful completion of the first phase of a Muni reform campaign that many had claimed was politically impossible.

Elsbernd's drop-off date was no coincidence: on the same day, he pointed out, Muni operators received a 5.5 percent pay raise, costing the city about $9 million. Elsbernd's legislation would enable the city to set operator wages though collective bargaining, rather than through an averaging of the country's top-paying transit systems.

The Elsbernd/SPUR measure will compete with a measure introduced in May [1] by Supervisors Chiu, Campos, Mar, and Mirkarimi. While both measures would eliminate the automatic pay hikes for operators, Elsbernd's would also eliminate "side-letter" agreements that, an audit recently showed, cost the city millions.

In addition, the Chiu/Campos/Mar/Mirkarimi measure would allow the Board of Supervisors to appoint members to the MTA board, a power currently reserved exclusively for the Mayor. It would also allow the Supervisors to veto Muni service reductions.

Comparing the two measures, Elsbernd said, "one is about empowering the Board of Supervisors," while his "is about empowering riders of Muni."

To qualify, the measure needed 47,000 valid signatures. A cushion of over 20,000 additional signatures was thought necessary to make up for any found to be ineligible.

By July first, the campaign had collected 74,887 signatures and was ready to submit them to the Department of Elections, days ahead of the drop-off deadline.

The campaign recruited volunteer signature-gatherers though a website at FixMuniNow.com [2], a Facebook group, and a Twitter feed [3], and Elsbernd recognized their hard work. "We couldn't have done this without tremendous volunteer effort," he said.

Of course, money helped, too. Elsbernd estimated that the campaign had raised about $325,000 for signature gathering. As the SF Appeal pointed out, that equates to $4.27 per signature -- far higher than the average of $2.50 to $3.

The additional funding may have been necessary to overcome stiff opposition from the drivers' union, which was joined by unions representing hotel workers and firefighters, as well as Supervisor Eric Mar.

Last month, Newsom criticized both efforts, calling Mar's measure a "bailout" of the transit agency since it would divert $40 million to Muni from the city's general fund. Newsom claimed that both attempts at legislative reform were partly to blame for Muni drivers' rejection of concessions that would have reversed service cuts.

Others went even further. Gillian Gillett, Chair of SPUR's Transportation Committee, recounted warnings that Elsbernd received after proposing the legislation. At one point, she recalled, "he got a call saying his political career was over."

SPUR was a critical ally in supporting the legislation and in collecting signatures. At Thursday's news conference, Elsbernd credited Gillett as being the top signature-gatherer.

Despite union opposition and skepticism from the mayor and his fellow supervisors, Elsbernd proved capable of exceeding fundraising and signature-gathering expectations. That support from voters and donors bodes well for the measure's success in November.