There was plenty of insider tea spilled about how Mayor Breed allegedly muscled city commissioners in an “emergency” hearing Tuesday that made more political hay over Breed’s undated resignation letters scandal.
Unlike most Tuesdays, there is no San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting today, thanks to this week’s Indegenous Peoples’ Day holiday. But in the wake of the recent scandal that Mayor London Breed had demanded undated, advance resignation letters from about 40 city commissioners (including Kamala Harris’s niece!), KTVU reported Monday that Supervisor Dean Preston had called an “emergency meeting” of the supes’ Government Audit and Oversight Committee to discuss the matter (they normally meet on Thursdays). And KPIX added there would be a star witness of sorts in SF Police Commissioner Max Carter-Oberstone, who effectively blew the whistle on all this in a public fight with Breed.
SFist tuned in to the meeting, and we found it very odd that Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, Breed’s only political ally on the committee, was not in attendance. It was simply stated that Mandelman was “unable to join us today,” and Supervisor Hillary Ronen would be sitting in for him.
And maybe there’s an innocent explanation for this, like travel, or a dentist’s appointment or something. But it sure set the table for a three-member panel of traditional Breed-bashers (Preston, Ronen, and Supervisor Connie Chan) to tee off on Breed’s policies and conduct. And that’s exactly what they did, with Preston calling the letters “a textbook abuse of power,” and Ronen saying that “to ask someone to sign something that’s false” because they “haven’t yet served” is “in essence asks [the signer] to lie.” This grandstanding was expected, and par for the progressive supervisor course.
“The letter of resignation I was directed to sign, which gave the mayor carte blanche to remove me for any reason, can only be understood as an end-run,” Carter-Oberstone said at Tuesday’s hearing. “The mayor has often opted to attack me personally rather than to defend the substance of her conduct.”
Carter-Oberstone said that “I was left with an overwhelming sense that this [letter] was a requirement” to be renominated to the commission, and said he was served with the letter (which he did not write himself) on April 26, just days before his first term was to expire.
“Any doubt about whether it was a requirement was resolved the following day,” he continued. “I reached out to [Breed’s director of commissions and community relations Tyra] Fennell, and asked whether we were still on track to submit my nomination that day, April 26, because my term expired on April 30. She responded back to me that ‘You haven’t responded to my email yet’, referring to her email from the prior day, which she had sent me with the letter of resignation that I needed to sign.”
Carter-Oberstone said he effectively horse-traded with Fennell that he would sign the letter only once his renomination was secured. But he knew the letter could be used against him.
“The fact that everybody knows that this resignation letter is just floating in the ether, that it can be accepted at any moment with no notice, immediately terminating your tenure on the commission is a consideration that’s at the forefront of at least my mind,” he said Tuesday.
And he claims that did happen. He says Breed’s director of policy Andres Power called him on August 1 demanding he “give an impassioned speech to call into question the legitimacy of [a police commission] working group, to essentially say it’s running roughshod over the community.”
Carter-Oberstone added, “I can say with about 80% confidence [that] there would be serious consequences” if he didn’t comply with Power’s demand.
(The mayor’s chief of staff Sean Elsbernd criticized the “80% confidence” qualifier by saying “Let’s not take that as fact.”)
Notably, Breed was furious that Carter-Oberstone voted for Cindy Elias as president of the police commission, rather than Breed’s preferred candidate Larry Yee. “The [mayor’s] people were not happy,” Carter-Oberstone said.
“I originally spoke with Ms. Fennell,” he continued. “She then handed her phone to Mr. Elsbernd who was quite upset, as has now been reported in the press. He reminded me of a conversation I had with the mayor in April where I said I would work with the mayor if she needed to make a leadership change at the department,” and Elsbernd accused him of “essentially reneging on my promise.”
(Wait a minute… He said “leadership change at the department,” not at the commission level. Maybe it was a slip of the tongue. But it could also fairly feed rumors that Breed has designs on firing SFPD Chief Bill Scott.)
Elsbernd was present at Tuesday’s meeting too. He admitted such letters were not used under previous mayors, and the practice started “early in the mayor’s tenure.” He also said signing the letters was “optional” (though it’s unclear whether this optional-ness was communicated), And he pointed to historical precedents like the 2013 case of SF Ports commissioner Mel Murphy who had some apparent ethical improprieties, and the 2012 Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi domestic violence case, to justify the ability to yank officials who refuse to step down themselves.
The supervisors are exploiting a political embarrassment for Breed, but there’s not much more they can do. Preston said there could be forthcoming legislation banning such advance resignation letters, and added, “Had anyone other than the mayor done this, there would be calls for that person to be removed from office for misconduct.”
But they would only be “calls for” that person to be removed. And while the supes can spin some more hay from this, Breed certainly will not apologize. She seems to feel that merely saying she’ll discontinue this practice is enough to make the scandal blow over, while her critics on the board will do what they can to make sure it does not blow over easily.