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Mayor Ed Lee’s Port Commission pick sails through board committee

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Mayor Ed Lee’s Port Commission appointment to fill the seat vacated by his previous controversial pick, Mel Murphy, sailed through the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee on Thursday.

Eleni Kounalakis, if ultimately confirmed by the full board in two weeks, would serve on the five-member Port Commission, filling out the remainder of Murphy’s term, ending May 1, when she’d likely be reappointed.

Murphy was pressured to resign in August following controversy about alleged building violations, which led to a lawsuit against him by the City Attorney.

Kounalakis drew support from important segments of the political arena in former progressive Mayor Art Agnos, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

“San Francisco’s waterfront is one of its greatest and most important features,” Kounalakis said during the board’s Rules Committee hearing. “The need to protect, maintain and constantly search for new ways to improve the San Francisco waterfront is an important task for our city.”

Her appointment comes as Port Director Monique Moyer announced her retirement and amid some of the most hotly debated periods over waterfront development. A lawsuit is pending over the legality of voter-approved Proposition B, which required voter approval of any development which exceeds existing height limits along the 7.5 mile long waterfront.

“I know very well the importance that civil society plays anywhere, but particularly in areas as important as San Francisco’s waterfront,” Kounalakis said. “There are many stakeholders. Community advocates, neighborhoods and so many others make up the symphony of voices who actively engage to make sure that their perspectives are heard and considered. I pledge to respect the many overlapping interests and jurisdictions.”

Kounalakis was appointed by President Barack Obama as ambassador to Hungary from 2010-13. She is currently a senior advisor at Albright Stonebridge Group, a global business advisory firm established and led by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She was appointed chair in 2014 of the California Advisory Council for International Trade and Investment, which attracts foreign investment to California. She is the past president of the Sacramento-based real estate company AKT Development, founded by her father.

Kounalakis is an active political donor, having contributed most recently $10,000 to Mayor Lee’s affordable housing bond this past November, $500 to the mayor’s campaign and $500 to the mayor’s appointee to the District 3 seat, Julie Christensen, who lost in November to current seat holder Aaron Peskin.

The Rules Committee, on which supervisors Katy Tang and Malia Cohen serve, voted to confirm the appointment. The full board will vote on it in two weeks.

Cohen said Kounalakis has a “strong grasp of the underlying issues, particularly around the Port and land use.”

“It is an ongoing battle along the southeast and southern waterfront,” Cohen said. “There are many things afoot.”

Meanwhile, Jon Golinger, who ran a successful “No Wall on the Waterfront” campaign against the Port Commission-supported 8 Washington development, said the commission is, in general, too weighted toward business consultants and real estate interests. He is encouraging the Board of Supervisors to place on the November ballot a charter amendment that would split up the appointment power between the mayor and board and establish specific criteria for each seat in order to diversify representation. Such a measure was recommended by a June 2014 civil grand jury report.

“An important element in ensuring that the Port’s future and its planning is the product of greater public input, the Jury recommends a charter amendment to change the appointment of Port Commissioners. It is recommended that the Board of Supervisors make two Port Commission appointments and the Mayor make three,” the report said.