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Dirty politics at City Hall

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San Francisco’s elected leaders at City Hall must stand up for their values in a responsible manner. (Rachael Garner/Special to S.F. Examiner)

We, as a city, benefit when our leaders are passionate, argumentative and willing to fight for their ideas. We do not wish them to all agree on significant challenges facing The City. We have faith that the best policies and governance emerges only through friction from competing perspectives and leaders who are courageous in the face of opposition.

However, meanness and spite do not aid public discourse — as we have seen with the political divisiveness in recent months approaching apocalyptic levels on the national stage.

It’s as if we can’t see each other anymore through our selected Facebook feeds, the echo chamber of modern media, or the dog whistle rhetoric of the campaigns. Our collective resentment and fatigue only grows.

It is tempting, at moments, to invoke the “Can’t we all get along?” plea, but of course that’s not what we really want. We long for civil disagreement and thoughtful argument about matters of substance. We don’t really want everybody to be friends in the end, but it would be nice to think we could, for the most part, benefit from engaging with each other.

It’s as if the country is coming apart at the seams, and this past week, a whole lot of meanness and spite broke out at the Board of Supervisors.

The acrimony at City Hall concerned an issue that has upended cities across the country and has been no less fraught in San Francisco: how to best hold the Police Department accountable for misuse of force, to better protect both our communities and our officers.

The debate comes amidst growing discord over a growing crisis of public safety, both here and elsewhere, with a growing number of fatal police shootings over the past year, especially of black men. In recent weeks, high-profile police shootings and multiple attacks on police officers have only ratcheted up the tension, distrust and fear on both sides of the thin blue line.

On Tuesday, the supervisors narrowly defeated a proposal from Supervisor John Avalos to make tens of millions of dollars of the Police Department budget contingent upon proof of department reforms, including its use-of-force policy.

Some called it retaliation when, in turn, the progressive members sided with Avalos to kill Supervisor Malia Cohen’s push for a November ballot measure to give more authority to the Office of Citizen’s Complaints to hold the Police Department accountable.

The progressive bloc instead pushed to fold such a measure into another ballot measure to create a public advocate position, another hot-button issue of disagreement in the growing divide on the board. That matter will be continued on Tuesday.

The slights, complaints and bruised feelings have been simmering for months, and this week it spilled out into public view.

Cohen blasted the progressives for playing dirty politics, releasing a statement saying, “Unlike my colleagues, I do not believe we should politicize the lives of black and brown people.”

Avalos called such criticism “total hypocrisy,” explaining that the moderates have often used “dirty politics” to thwart progressive proposals at the committee level, where moderates have a majority in some cases.

Other supervisors complained it was becoming increasingly difficult to negotiate any legislation through this multiplying maze of internecine struggles.

As supervisors bickered in person across the chambers, many also took shots at each other on social media in real time.

Board of Supervisors President London Breed told the San Francisco Examiner she was likewise disgusted. She accused the progressive bloc of the board of killing Cohen’s proposal for police accountability in the name of political payback and petty personal politics.

“How many more black people need to die in San Francisco before we change the policies in this city???” Breed wrote on Facebook. “This is truly politics at its worst!!!!”

How much should we worry about all this sniping and discord? After all, we did not elect our supervisors to make nice and get along, but working well together for the good of The City requires a needed balance.

The rancor of this past week reveals troubling trends of a less-than-collegial work environment at City Hall. We hope our elected leaders will continue to disagree and stand up for their values, but to do so as adults who are worthy of the office we entrusted them to hold.


Michael Howerton is editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Examiner.

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