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'Caretaker' mayor not needed

by BAR Editorial Board

We have thought a lot about San Francisco's succession laws since Mayor Ed Lee unexpectedly died December 12. The City Charter states, upon the death of the mayor, the Board of Supervisors president becomes acting mayor. That person remains acting mayor (as well as the supervisor of their district and board president) until the next election, which in this case is June 5, or until six supervisors vote to appoint an interim mayor, who would serve until the election. When Lee died, Board of Supervisors President London Breed became acting mayor. Not surprisingly, Breed has also filed to run in the June 5 election to complete Lee's term through 2019. Some supervisors and others think that a "caretaker" mayor should be appointed in order to "level the playing field" for the June election.

Since Lee's passing just over a month ago, we have concluded that a caretaker mayor is not needed and that Breed should remain acting mayor.

We understand Supervisor Aaron Peskin's concerns that Breed remains in charge of the city's legislative branch by virtue of being board president and also now leads the executive branch as acting mayor. "While the Charter allows the board president to serve as acting mayor ... I don't think we should be mixing the two branches of government for a long period of time," Peskin said at last week's meeting. But the other mayoral candidates would like to see someone else run the city for five months until the election, depriving Breed of the benefit of incumbency - hence, the "level playing field" talking point that has been expressed.

That argument, however, is flawed. Creating a mayoral field where none of the candidates is mayor does not reflect the reality of mayoral succession as defined by the City Charter. More importantly, it sends a subtle (or maybe not so subtle) message that the city's first female African-American mayor can't handle her duties. (Indeed, as someone quipped to laughter at a recent rally in support of Breed remaining acting mayor, "When did you know an African-American woman who didn't work two or three jobs?")

Indeed, if the acting mayor is so unacceptable to the board, then the charter requires six votes to replace the acting mayor. There are not six votes on the board in favor of a single candidate, whether it's Breed or someone else.

Every election is different. Yes, former state senator Mark Leno, who would be San Francisco's first openly gay mayor if he wins, was originally planning to run in the open contest in 2019, when Lee would have been termed out. So did everyone else, until Lee died. What had been a marathon turned into a sprint, and in the meantime Breed is acting mayor. If the supervisors appoint someone else, she'll still be the former acting mayor - regarded by the public as Lee's successor. Stripping her of her mayoral duties will do nothing to level the playing field, and the response to this is not to ask for an alternative, but to adapt to this uncommon - but not new - situation.

We don't see the sense in appointing someone to fill in for five months, but who can't run for mayor. What are they going to do? Fire the police chief? Reverse the progress made by Lee's administration on Navigation Centers and other homeless services? Stack boards and commissions? Keep things as they are? If it's the latter, San Francisco already has that in Breed, who is also moving forward with Lee's agenda on housing and other issues.

Of course, things could change dramatically and being acting mayor may not give Breed the advantage that some first thought. A serious crisis could alter the race in an instant, just as Lee's untimely passing transformed the mayoral election in the first place. We'll see what happens.

We want a vigorous debate, with attention paid to our issues and the candidates' visions for San Francisco. More importantly, we want to hear their solutions for the city's vexing problems.

Right now the board is likely to address the interim mayor issue at its meeting Tuesday, January 23. As of now, the supervisors are deadlocked 5-5 and Breed can't vote for herself. We think the board should have this conversation; transparency is necessary, and the board is aware of the potential for conflicts with the mixing of executive and legislative duties, as Peskin stated last week. Maybe there are San Franciscans who don't want Breed to continue serving as acting mayor, although we haven't heard of such an outcry. But we would encourage those supervisors on the fence to give careful consideration to their vote. Giving another candidate "a leg up" in the race - which is debatable - is the wrong reason to vote for a caretaker mayor. We do not need a pause in city government while a caretaker mayor and his/her staff members move into City Hall and get up to speed, only to leave in June. With the Trump administration constantly threatening sanctuary cities and targeting immigrants, it is not the time for a new mayoral administration when Breed has been fulfilling those duties.

All of this should not be construed as an endorsement of Breed in the June election. It is not. We still must meet with the major candidates and watch the campaign unfold. But Breed has been thrust into this position and deserves to serve it out until June. She has done an admirable job in keeping the city together in the wake of Lee's death.

Let the mayor's race begin in earnest, and let each candidate make their case to lead San Francisco. We look forward to it.

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