Supes Introduce Measure Aiming to Bring Accountability and Money to Muni

IMG_2016.jpgThe first day of a 10 percent service cut on May 12. Muni riders will have more to ponder at the platform with a new reform measure on the November ballot. Photo: Michael Rhodes

Four members of the Board of Supervisors introduced a ballot measure [PDF] today that would bring sweeping changes to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates Muni.

The measure, coauthored by Supervisors David Campos, Ross Mirkarimi, Eric Mar and Board of Supervisors Present David Chiu, would attempt to address many of the chronic issues at the SFMTA, including its governance, revenue and labor practices.

"[The measure] takes a comprehensive approach to the issue of transforming our public transit agency," said Campos, introducing the measure at the full Board of Supervisors meeting today along with its coauthors.

If approved by voters in November, the measure would give the supervisors power to appoint three of the seven SFMTA Board members. The Mayor — who currently appoints all seven members, with confirmation from the Board of Supervisors — would still get to appoint three members. The seventh director would be nominated jointly by the Mayor and the president of the Board of Supervisors. Four of the appointees would be required to be regular Muni riders before and during their tenure on the board.

The measure would also send an estimated $40 million in property tax revenue to the SFMTA annually, setting aside 2.5 cents for each $100 of assessed property valuation from the annual property tax levy for the SFMTA. That wouldn’t solve all of the agency’s fiscal problems, but it would be more than enough to cover the roughly $29 million gap the SFMTA is filling next year with a 10 percent service frequency reduction.

"We know that new resources have to be part of the solution," said Chiu, who introduced the revenue component of the legislation.

Tony Winnicker, a spokesperson for Mayor Gavin Newsom, called the move a power grab by the supervisors, who he argued already have enough say over the SFMTA Board, since they can reject the Mayor’s picks. "They don’t exercise their options fully now," said Winnicker. By splitting the appointments, he said, the measure could actually dilute accountability.

As for the $40 million in property tax revenue, Winnicker said it would be a "direct hit on the general fund," adding, "That’s robbing Peter to pay Paul."

In addition to the new revenue, the measure would seek to control the SFMTA’s costs. Work orders from other city departments — which cost the agency $65 million this year — would have to go through a public hearing and findings process, and each work order would need to have a written contract laying out its terms. That process would be managed by an "Inspector General" or "Independent Auditor" for the SFMTA, said Mirkarimi.

Chiu said the Inspector General would report directly to the SFMTA Board, and would serve as a "watchdog for Muni riders" to insure that Muni service is being delivered efficiently. He pointed to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia as examples of cities that already have similar oversight positions.

On the labor side, the measure would remove language in the City Charter that sets Muni operator salaries at the average of the two highest-paying transit agencies in the country. Instead, their salaries would be set through collective bargaining. That could help control operator salary costs, but perhaps more importantly, it should give SFMTA management more leverage to renegotiate work rules.

That provision is similar to the centerpiece of a ballot measure being advanced by Supervisor Sean Elsbernd. "Clearly there needs to be some attention on labor reform," said Mirkarimi. He added that the supervisors would continue to work with the operators’ union to "refine this process."

The supervisors would see their role in the budget process bolstered by the measure, as they’d need a six-vote simple majority to reject the SFMTA’s two-year budget, instead of seven as is required now.

But the new measure would also give the supervisors the power to adopt findings to support their decision to reject the budget, which the SFMTA Board would then have to consider before returning with a new budget. For now, the SFMTA Board doesn’t have to submit a new budget if the supervisors reject what they initially submit.

Finally, the measure would give the supervisors more say over service reductions. For now, the supervisors have veto power over any plans to abandon routes, but not over service frequency reductions. Under the measure, the term "route abandonment" would expand to include "reductions in any particular line by more than three service hours/day and reduction of more than 5 percent of total system wide transit service hours."

In other words, the ten percent service cut enacted by the SFMTA to balance its mid-year budget deficit would no longer be so easy, since a similar cut would require approval from the supervisors in the future.

The supervisors worked on the pieces separately without consulting each other directly, said Chiu, since Brown Act rules limit how much they can collaborate on such measures. Many of the suggestions, including the Inspector General, are responses to concerns raised in two recent audits of the SFMTA.

Campos said the measure also reflects ample input from members of various advocacy organizations and community groups, including the San Francisco Transit Riders Union, People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), the Chinese Progressive Association, the Chinatown Community Development Center, Livable City, SFBC, Walk SF, and the Senior Action Network. Many of the groups are part of the MORE Public Transit coalition as well.

Several of those groups have actively opposed Elsbernd’s measure, but the labor provision in the measure introduced today is more limited in scope than Elsbernd’s, so it may be more palatable. "I believe this charter amendment goes far in addressing the situation involving labor," said Chiu, thanking Elsbernd for getting the discussion started.

Chiu and his colleagues hope the greater accountability and labor reforms built into the measure will help sell the revenue component. That $40 million infusion would "make us a truly Transit First city," he said.

  • I’m taking a very skeptical look at this proposal given that a front group for TWU and the more radical leftist “activists” had a hand in writing it. Plus, I really would need to see how they plan on getting it passed. If they follow the usual “disorganized people running around in circles, talking big but doing little of value” plan that progressive city wide campaigns tend to use (think Gonzalez 2003) then the plan won’t pass, because complicated ballot measures tend to scare people away.

  • I like the idea that they are putting together a more comprehensive package – the only good that can come out of the current crisis is to use it as an opportunity to push through broad reforms. I think in general this will not go far enough to really transform the MTA into an effective organization, but at least some of the obviously needed changes are being pushed forward.

    More scrutiny of the work orders and continuous auditing is great. I hope this position will have enough independence to be effective.

    The additional set-aside is badly needed, and the fact that they are diverting it from existing revenue instead of trying to impose a new tax is exactly what’s needed, but will there be will to actually cut $40M elsewhere in city government? And why isn’t the new revenue tied to some requirements for Muni to provide more service out of every dollar it spends?

    The all-mayor appointed board is clearly a failure, and this new board election system may be a minor improvement, but I don’t expect much. The legislative requirement for service changes seems potentially dangerous – good if they can force the board to look beyond service cuts when revenue drops, but it also seems like another potential tool for NIMBYs to hold up necessary changes

  • Abe

    Four of the appointees would be required to be regular Muni riders before and during their tenure on the board.

    I absolutely LOVE this part… but how will they prove it? Anyone can get a transfer or fastpass. Who makes sure they actually depend on Muni?

  • Benjamin

    Great. A handful of Supes has decided the problem with Muni is that there isn’t enough bureaucracy or Supervisorial meddling.

    Muni needs real help. Giving the Supervisors MORE ability to get political with Muni’s fate is NOT the answer.

  • Gneiss

    I agree with Benjamin. More supervisor meddling is not what’s needed at this point. It will just make the agency even more ungovernable than it is now. What we need is a change in the work rules so the daily 15% absentee rate is reduced, management has more flexibility in hiring, so that part time workers can be added as well as full time staff, and a reduction in overall salaries and pension accrual across the board.

    However, the politics of SF city government makes this impossible if the union reps call anyone who suggest reducing salaries or changing work rules “racist”. Let’s have a rational discussion about costs before raiding the general fund or changing governance of the MTA.

  • andrew

    MORE Coalition is a union front. So this must be viewed skeptically at best.

  • andrew

    Yep, total power grab by the Supes. If you liked how the MTA was run before 1999, you’ll love this measure. This undoes everything that Muni reform was about. Elsbernd amendment is the way to go.

  • Brandon

    Requiring the members to ride Muni is the only part I like (besides giving Muni more money, of course they will just waste it). That part is probably unconstitutional though, you cant legislate punishments like that!

  • andrew

    SFMTA members are already required to ride Muni. From the CURRENT charter:

    “At least four of the directors must be regular riders of the Municipal Railway, and must continue to be regular riders during their terms. The directors must possess significant knowledge of, or professional experience in, one or more of the fields of government, finance, or labor relations. At least two of the directors must possess significant knowledge of, or professional experience in, the field of public transportation. During their terms, all directors shall be required to ride the Municipal Railway on the average once a week.”

  • Mark Ballew

    It makes no sense to allow the BoS to run Muni. Don’t they have enough to do? We’re kicking the funding can down the road; where’s this $40M going to come from? There’s a budget crisis and we’re taking money from somewhere with this prop. Social services maybe? Roads? SFPD?

    We need tougher actions on union pay; Eslbernd’s amendment addresses this by blowing away the lavish MOU and bargaining for something reasonable. The Sup’s prop simply is to muddy the waters when it comes to battling with the union for reasonable pay and benefits. Why must the BoS try to screw the riders (and owners, like Greg says) like this?

  • Daniel

    This is a giant Board of Supervisors power grab with a few goodies thrown in as garnish around the plate.

    The requirement that MTA Board members ride Muni is already part of the charter. The labor provisions are watered down from the Elsbernd amendment, and have no teeth. The Inspector General is a big new bureaucracy within MTA (because what MTA needs is more people who aren’t directly involved in delivering service, right?); everything the “Inspector General” does can be done now (and to some extent is done now) by the City Controller.

    Between half the appointments to the MTA Board and direct majority-vote control over MTA’s budget, there wouldn’t even be a reason for the MTA Board to exist under this thing. The Board of Supervisors would be, effectively, the MTA Board.

    The $40 million is nice, but despite some language about the Inspector General reviewing work orders, the measure does nothing to prevent that $40 million from being raided by other departments. I’d be surprised if any but a small fraction of it actually ended up in service on the street.

    The voters rejected the last power grab measure the supes put on the ballot; this one is far more expansive than the 4/3 split appointment nonsense, and offers riders little more than the assurance that the awesomeness of the Board of Supervisors will make it all turn out better. So I predict this will lose in a landslide. It may muddy the waters for Elsbernd’s more limited (but also more real) reform measure, leading to the defeat of both; perhaps that’s the whole idea.

    This measure is a giant waste of time and energy that could be spent actually, you know, addressing real problems with Muni. This measure does almost nothing to address the concerns raised in the (flawed, rushed) Board of Supervisors audit of the MTA. Perhaps the supervisors should actually read it before declaring loudly that the audit provides evidence for whatever they wanted to do in the first place.

  • david vartanoff

    MTA was created to give the Supes cover for failing to fix Muni. All that has changed is another layer of persons without sufficient backbone to confront work rules, absenteeism, mgmt incompetence, and transit hostile city policies (4 way Stop sins on transit arterials, bogus work orders). Perhaps a large dose of osteoporosis pills for all?

  • The MTA was created because the Board of Supes found itself institutionally unable to fix Muni. They had become a place where practical but unpopular (or even just unpopular with a small-but-vocal group) ideas went to die. This renewed power grab seems to assume that district elections act as some kind of magic elixir granting the current board immunity from the foibles of the old. I think this is misguided; if anything, the district-elected board, whatever its advantages over the at-large board, will find it harder to make tough decisions about Muni because of the extraordinary deference supes show one another when it comes to matters within a colleague’s district. And Muni can’t be approached on a district-by-district basis. If service is to be added or cut, it should mainly be where the demand is; that may not may not be distributed evenly among 11 arbitrary cantons of equal size.

    Any number of good things the MTA has done, like aggressively raising off-street parking fees, and the Transit Effectiveness Project, would have been much more difficult with the Board of Supervisors in direct control of Muni, as it would be under this amendment. We’d be arguing about the plan to reroute the 6-Parnassus until 2019. I think this would be true under any Board of Supervisors, district-elected or otherwise.

    For those who retain their faith that district elections makes the Board of Supes a more enlightened place, I submit that district elections may not go on forever. One poll already shows that a pretty major modification of district elections (seven district supes, four elected at large) would pass today. I strongly suspect that, every 15 years or so, the city will get fed up with the supes and change up how the board is elected. I think we have, as a city, a bit too much faith in process fixes, in the idea that if we arrange the deck chairs just right, we’ll miss the iceberg.

    That misplaced faith is, I think, the fuel that propels this ballot measure. There’s not enough in the tank to pass it, I’ll wager—the supes are badly overreaching here—but enough to get it onto the ballot? Probably.

  • Dave

    Lots of comments:

    @Greg and andrews, the MORE Public Transit Coalition is not a front for the union. The TWU Local 250-A is not that organized. The Coalition is led by community-based organizations, most notably POWER and the ANSWER Coalition with significant participation from a variety of others, who sincerely wish to protect workers’ rights and working conditions. TWU members tend to come to most of the meeting because it’s a friendly place for them, but they are not the leaders. You can disagree with the position but I can guarantee you it’s not a front for the union.

    @Benjamin and andrew and Daniel, regarding the “power grab” by the Board of Supervisors. This is indeed a slight tipping of the power balance toward the Board, but it does almost nothing to allow the Board to “meddle” in MTA politics. The redefinition of route abandonment is really the only increased meddling opportunities this amendment gives the Board. And that’s pretty minor. This is not, as Daniel says, “giving the Supes power to run Muni.”

    Splitting the appointments will probably have the effect of giving the executive of the MTA more independence, because he will have to answer to seven relatively independent Board members instead of one Mayor, which is currently the case. Those who know about organizational success tend to understand that a good, strong executive is the most important factor in that success.

    A Board appointed entirely by one politician is a recipe for meddling by that one politician. A split Board will help prevent the Mayor from calling Nat Ford to say, “hey I want you to take it easy on TWU because I’m running for election,” or, “hey, back off on Sunday and evening meters because I’m running for reelection,” or, “hey, give this guy from another department a do-nothing job because my other department head needs to get rid of him” or “hey, pay for my climate change coordinator” or “hey subsidize my General Fund problem by an additional $30 million” or “hey I want you to spend a couple million on this cool new Culture Bus idea I have” or “hey don’t you dare cut the service to Pacific Heights because my campaign contributors live there” because Nat Ford will be able to say, “sorry Mr. Mayor but my Board will fire me if I listen exclusively to you.”

    I could come up with many more examples, but I think I made my point that a Mayoral-appointed Board isn’t exactly a recipe for the avoidance of political meddling, which is the claimed goal of advocates of the current system, though it strains credulity. I know the strongest advocates of a Mayoral-appointed Board pretty well, so therefore I wager a guess that the actual motivations have more to do with valuing executive authority and the ideology of someone who can get elected in a big-money at-large citywide election more than it does with avoiding political meddling.

  • To describe this as a “slight” tipping of the balance to the Board of Supervisors is to denude “slight” of all meaning. This gives the Board of Supervisors total and absolute control over the MTA: simple majority approval of their budget, appointment authority over a majority of their board (and rejection authority over the rest), and continued direct control of the SFCTA equals direct and unfettered Board of Supervisors control over the MTA and therefore Muni, a model with an established history of failure.

    Your argument that a split board results in a more independent executive falls to pieces when the rest of this measure is taken into account. Under this measure, every supervisor’s whim must be catered to, especially when any Muni or parking proposal touches their district in any way. The head of the MTA would be hamstrung by the competing demands of his eleven new bosses.

    I’m open to the idea that reducing the level of the mayor’s control over the agency could be beneficial. There are a lot of ways to do that without making the agency an organ of the Board of Supervisors. But doing it by giving supes near-direct rule over the agency is not the answer. This measure isn’t about independence for the executive at MTA; it’s about the Board of Supervisors scrambling to snatch every bit of power they can while we have a lame-duck mayor in Room 200.

    The only good thing about this measure is that it’s so transparent and overreaching in its power grab that it won’t take much to convince voters to reject it, though it’ll certainly succeed at distracting everyone from pursuing real solutions for MTA for the next six months.


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