As members of perhaps the most influential volunteer body in The City, Planning Commissioners wield the levers of land use in San Francisco, regularly deciding the fate of multimillion dollar projects.
Yet Planning Commissioner Christine Johnson has stalled her announced exit and held onto a vital seat while casting no votes. More eyebrow-raising still, Johnson is maintaining this influential position while simultaneously launching her campaign to represent District 6 on the Board of Supervisors.
On Dec. 21, Johnson announced she would step down at a regular meeting of the Planning Commission.
“Hi, everybody,” she said. “I wanted to say today will be my last hearing as a planning commissioner of San Francisco. I’ve been a proud public servant.”
Johnson detailed her history on various commissions over the last 14 years, successes to provide housing for The City, and told Planning Department staff and her fellow commissioners, “I’ve been honored to serve beside you.”
It was a touching speech. A fond farewell.
But strangely, at the next meeting Jan. 11, Johnson was in her chair again.
Since then — at the Planning Commission’s meetings Jan. 25, Feb. 1 and Feb. 8 — Johnson’s seat has been empty. But she confirmed to me that she still holds her position.
Without a tie-breaking vote, the seven-member Planning Commission has already found itself deadlocked in some matters. For example, on a discretionary review of a building permit application for 2567 Mission St., to convert an office space into a cafe, the commission found itself in a 3-3 deadlock.
Some city insiders wonder if Johnson is keeping the seat warm for whoever wins the June mayor’s race to appoint someone new. Johnson told me that not only was this idea “ridiculous” but not even feasible — whomever is appointed to her Planning Commission seat would only serve out the remainder of her term until June 30, giving any new mayor an opportunity to appoint a new commissioner.
Though an empty seat on the commission is bad, the fact that Johnson could return during any meeting to vote is worse.
Johnson, who began the official process to run for District 6 supervisor on Jan. 19, can now take money from campaign donors. That opens the door for pay-to-play activity; she could reward potential donors with key votes to approve developments on the Planning Commission.
Conflict between donors and commissioners is precisely the problem Supervisor Aaron Peskin’s new charter amendment seeks to rectify.
Introduced in December, Peskin’s amendment to the City Charter would see any commissioner automatically removed from their seat, should they opt to run for office.
Peskin would not comment on Johnson specifically, but said, “My charter amendment is precisely about people who can influence lucrative decisions.”
Leaving a supervisor candidate to serve on a commission “creates an untenable pay-to-play dynamic,” Peskin said.
To be clear, Peskin did not say Johnson has engaged in such activity. But the potential is there.
Project developers, who are also often campaign donors, may have known for weeks that Johnson was running to be supervisor; it certainly wasn’t a secret in The City — Johnson was rumored to run months ago.
Even in the Dec. 21 meeting where Johnson publicly resigned, Planning Commissioner Rich Hillis was not exactly guarded about saying her policy perspective will “hopefully” continue on in “bigger areas.” Commissioner Rodney Fong said, “You have so many big ideas. Maybe too big for this commission.”
Practically winking and elbowing while he said it, Fong added, “Wherever you go, I hope you’re able to implement and move forward and push those big ideas.”
In a Friday interview, Johnson said her intention on Dec. 21 was genuinely to step down.
But Mayor Ed Lee’s death Dec. 12 complicated matters, she said. She was waiting on staff from the Mayor’s Office to brief the mayor — first London Breed, now Mark Farrell — before she resigned.
“I spoke with The Mayor’s Office this week,” she said. “The staff has made sure to make time to brief Mayor Farrell the concerns with the Planning Commission.”
The Mayor’s Office was not immediately available for comment.
“A lot of things were delayed or scrambled [after Lee’s death],” Johnson said.
That may very well be true — I certainly found no information to tell me otherwise — but the public has way to know for sure unless Johnson steps down.
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