SF Supervisor Engardio focuses on joy of job

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday January 3, 2024
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San Francisco Supervisor Joel Engardio, right, rode with his husband, Lionel Hsu, in the 2023 San Francisco Pride parade. Photo: Courtesy Joel Engardio
San Francisco Supervisor Joel Engardio, right, rode with his husband, Lionel Hsu, in the 2023 San Francisco Pride parade. Photo: Courtesy Joel Engardio

During his first year representing the city's fourth supervisorial district, San Francisco Supervisor Joel Engardio weathered a number of stormy situations. His tenure literally started off with a bang when an outer Sunset home that officials said was used as an illegal drug lab exploded last February, killing a female resident.

Alerted to the incident by the city's fire chief, who texted him amid a committee hearing, Engardio raced from City Hall to the scene. He ended up missing Mayor London Breed's State of the City address that day as he attended to the needs of his constituents.

"It was like a 'Breaking Bad' episode," recalled Engardio, referring to the acclaimed television show about a high school chemistry teacher turned meth producer and dealer.

Working with emergency officials and city department heads, Engardio and his staff held a town hall a few days later to address residents' concerns. The blast had damaged a number of nearby homes and caused a fire that burned several residences and left one person with serious burns.

"It was my literal trial by fire, for me and my staff. It was a tragic situation and I don't want to make light of it, but it also showed early on we were able to handle a crisis," said Engardio during a phone interview in mid-December.

The Bay Area Reporter caught up with Engardio to discuss his freshman year in office before he left with his husband, Lionel Hsu, on their annual holiday vacation to visit Hsu's family in Taiwan. (They returned this week.) A moderate who lost three bids for the Board of Supervisors' District 7 seat west of Twin Peaks, Engardio was redistricted into District 4 and defeated progressive former supervisor Gordon Mar on the November 2022 ballot.

His victory brought the number of gay men serving on the board to three, a record. Engardio also became the first LGBTQ resident of a western neighborhood in the city to be elected supervisor.

A former journalist and advocate on public safety issues, Engardio has used his writing skills to pen newsletters and blog posts to keep his constituents, and City Hall watchers, informed not only about his legislative priorities but also highlights about the goings-on in the neighborhoods he represents. A frequent feature is his profiles of police officers assigned to patrol his oceanside district.

It stems from his visit to the Taraval Station during his first week as a supervisor last January. Engardio spent 10 hours meeting individually with the officers there as they came in for their shifts throughout the day.

"This was all about meeting actual beat officers and hearing what they are going through," explained Engardio, who noted many were born and raised in the city. "They want the city to be better. A lot of them are younger people and are part of a new generation of police officers, so they embrace reform and want to help the community. It is why in my newsletter I try to profile as many of these officers as I can."

A favorite profile of his was the one he posted last March about Police Officer Drewkai Butler, an immigrant from Liberia who left a tech career to join the force in his early 40s.

"He really loves and believes in San Francisco. He brings so many life experiences and other skills to the job," said Engardio. "It is what we want to see more of. So many people are doing good, and I want to highlight it."

Purveyor of joy

Being a purveyor of joy has become a major facet of Engardio's persona as an elected representative. So much so he came to the board's Halloween meeting adorned in a T-shirt festooned with the face of the character Joy from the Pixar movie "Inside Out."

"There is a lot to fix in San Francisco and it can feel daunting. But we must recognize the joy in our city. There is plenty of it," Engardio wrote in a November blog post titled "Leading With Joy."

Speaking to the B.A.R. Engardio said he has tried to lead with joy since taking his oath of office.

"There are a lot of things we need to focus on in San Francisco that can seem daunting," he said. "The hard work we are doing to fix problems is not sustainable if you don't have hope. It is important to recognize joy where it exists."

Engardio has continued to volunteer as a marriage officiant for couples who wed at City Hall. In June, he spent two hours marrying couples on the 10th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed same-sex marriages to resume in California after being blocked by a statewide ballot measure passed in 2008.

"I try to volunteer to marry all couples at City Hall when I can because it's a joyful thing to do when things get intense in other areas of City Hall," Engardio noted.

Lionel Hsu, left, and his husband, San Francisco Supervisor Joel Engardio, try dishes at a Taipei night market. Photo: Courtesy Joel Engardio  

He's also reveled in the more joyous aspects of his role as a supervisor, such as participating in the annual Lunar New Year and Pride parades. Asked what he considered to be one of his most significant achievements in 2023, Engardio pointed to the night market he held in the Sunset that drew thousands of people on a Friday evening in September. (He sent the B.A.R. a photo of him and Hsu "researching" the food at Taipei's famous night markets in order "to enhance the food offerings at the returning Sunset Night Market" that will be held this spring.)

"I look around my Sunset district and I see all types of joyful activities," noted Engardio, who pointed to the nighttime market as an example of how "we can all have joyous, positive experiences in our neighborhoods."

A main legislative priority for him in 2024 will be amending the city's zoning to allow for increased heights of mixed-use developments on corner lots in the westside of San Francisco. Engardio pointed to the building that houses a Gus's Community Market below several floors of housing at 44th and Noriega streets, which opened a few years ago, as an example of the type of in-fill developments he wants to promote.

"We need more of that in the Sunset, especially units that can serve as senior housing," he said. "If you are a senior in the Sunset and want to sell your home, you have zero to no options to downsize and age in place in an elevator building in your neighborhood. I want to create housing to allow people to stay in their neighborhoods."

Challenging year ahead
Finding the joy in his job will be more challenging this year due to city leaders having to grapple with a ballooning budget deficit and a heated election cycle that will see voters either adopt or reject a number of local measures on the March primary ballot and elect a mayor come November. After a rough few years confronted with a number of challenges, from the ongoing impacts of the COVID pandemic and faltering city revenues to continued fallout from a City Hall bribery scandal that has led to the federal prosecution of a number of former department heads, city administrators, and local developers, Mayor London Breed is seeking another term this fall. (That scandal led the city's Ethics Commission to place Proposition D on the March primary ballot to strengthen the rules city officers and employees must abide by when it comes to accepting gifts or payments and engaging in non-work activities.)

Endorsing her candidacy is Engardio, who told the B.A.R. that a number of policies Breed implemented to address myriad ails of the city are beginning to yield positive outcomes.

"She is very focused on fixing San Francisco, and we can see, especially in recent months, traction and improvements," he said. "There are many, many puzzle pieces that have to be put into place to fix our city and they are coming into place. It is taking time to see some results, but we are starting to see results."

He has split with the mayor on one of her three ballot measures she is pushing voters to approve in March. Should Proposition F pass, it would require drug screening for single people under the age of 65 receiving city services such as employment assistance, housing, shelter, utilities and food.

"I don't know how effective it will be," said Engardio. "I worry that if too many resources are put into implementing it, it could subtract from the resources needed to solve other problems."

He is backing Breed's Prop C, which would waive certain taxes for office-to-residential conversions in the city's downtown core.

"We can't have buildings sitting empty," said Engardio. "Anything we can do to incentivize repurposing buildings will go a long way to rejuvenate downtown."

Engardio also supports Prop E, which among its provisions would allow the police to use drones for vehicle pursuits and submit body-camera footage in lieu of written reports in certain use-of-force incidents where they didn't fire their weapon or physically injure someone. But he is not backing Supervisor Ahsha Safai's Prop B, a charter amendment that would increase the minimum number of police officers from 1,700 to 2,074 but only if voters approve funding to do so in a future election.

"It talks aspirationally about proposing a new tax, but there is nothing real in it to actually implement anything," said Engardio.

He would like to see the supervisors hammer out a new ballot measure to fund more police, as well as 911 dispatchers, that can be put on the November ballot.

"They are underpaid and stressed. They are leaving the job in droves," Engardio noted. "You can have all the police officers in the world, but if no one is there to answer the phone in an emergency, what is the point?"

In the meantime, Engardio is pushing for adoption of his own ballot measure, Prop G, which calls on the San Francisco Unified School District to teach Algebra 1 to students by their eighth-grade year. As the school district is run independently, it would not be binding if passed.

Nonetheless, Engardio told the B.A.R. he placed it on the ballot because parents in support of offering earlier algebra classes don't feel listened to by school leaders, even with a committee formed to look into the matter. The district moved the courses a decade ago to being taught in ninth grade with an eye toward improving Black students' success rates in the subject.

A Stanford University study found it largely failed to do so, as Education Week reported last year. And Engardio contends the postponement of the classes is one reason why parents pull their children from the city's public schools when they enter middle school.

"We need to attract parents back to the public schools and offering algebra in eighth grade is one way to do that. This is not an outlier, most school districts offer it," he said. "If the school district knows it is a failed policy and is not fixing it then the voters should have a say and be able to say there is a mandate for this."

As for an effort being pushed by the city's youth commission to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections, Engardio told the B.A.R. he supports it. He pledged to work to see it placed on the ballot in the fall. (Similar city measures narrowly lost in 2016 and 2020.)

"Kids can drive a car at 16 and work at a job at 16. Both of those activities have tremendous consequences and require tremendous responsibilities, so I see no reason why we can't let 16- and 17-year-olds vote locally," said Engardio. "It is important to encourage kids to get into the habit of voting so it becomes a lifelong endeavor."

Having been so dogged in his pursuit of serving on the board, Engardio told the B.A.R. he has no regrets and continues to "love the job" of being a supervisor. While most Fridays he schedules himself to be in his district, during the rest of the week when he enters City Hall he always ascends to his office on the second floor via the stairs under the building's rotunda.

"Harvey Milk famously did that," noted Engardio, referring to the city's first gay supervisor elected in 1977. "Now I do it. I never take the elevator; I always take the stairs."

Anytime he is at City Hall or in the board chamber, Engardio said he pinches himself.

"I love the job. I relish the history of where I am sitting," he said. "If public comment gets long or laborious, I look up at the chandelier or at the antique desk I am sitting at and really savor the moment and be grateful I am here and able to effect change."

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