Mayor’s race may put SF fire chief’s job on shaky ground

It looks like at least two mayoral candidates, should they win in June, may ask Fire Department Chief Joanne Hayes-White to pack her bags and ride a cherry-red fire engine into the sunset.

Most new mayoral administrations regularly pick new city department heads as a matter of course, but that wasn’t the case under the late Mayor Ed Lee.

San Francisco Firefighters Local 798 has long called for Hayes-White’s ouster. As far back as 2014, the union blasted her for not running enough ambulances to serve The City, among other issues.

Hayes-White was sworn in by former Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2004.

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The union repeated its call for Hayes-White’s removal in its recent mayoral candidate questionnaire. In a section asking for candidates to state their positions on topics important to firefighters, the union listed “Proposed personnel changes within the current SFFD leadership” with two blanks to mark “support” or “oppose.”

London Breed, a former fire commissioner, and Angela Alioto each marked “support,” according to sources who shared the results of the private questionnaire with me. This may reveal a shaky future for Hayes-White under either candidate.

Jane Kim marked “support” but clarified on the form that she wanted more specificity in the question before answering with finality, and Leno marked neither answer.

Kim later told me that marking support “was an error,” but said her written answer made it clear she’s open to change. Leno told me he filled an answer underneath explaining, “As Mayor, a top priority will be to conduct thorough performance reviews and evaluations of all department heads and their operations.”

Hayes-White said in a statement, “As a city department head, I am aware that I serve at the pleasure of the mayor. My focus is to continue leading this department forward.”

I went to Local 798 head Tom O’Connor with what I knew, and he said the leadership question was not just about the chief, but all of the San Francisco Fire Department command staff.

“The entire administration itself is too removed from day-to-day operations,” he said. “We want the next generation of leadership with experience on a fire engine with fresh ideas.”

Yet, he conceded, the leadership question to candidates also included Hayes-White.
The 25-year union man said, “Truth be told, none of this should be unusual. Every mayor brings in new department heads.”

That is, except Lee.

“Ed Lee said he kept department heads because he was the continuation of the Newsom tenure,” O’Connor said.

When I followed up with Alioto, she texted me, “Chief White is a very close friend who has done a remarkable job … I am extremely proud of her.”

But, Alioto added, “the [fire union] members feel differently.”

Breed’s campaign, on the other hand, shied away from talk of dethroning the chief.
“President Breed did not — and will not — call for removing Chief Hayes-White nor speak about any specific member of Department leadership,” wrote campaign advisor Conor Johnston in an email Friday.

Breed’s campaign statement may sound positively bonkers to anyone who heard Breed’s public, repeated outcry for Hayes-White to step down in 2014 for slow ambulance response times, as the San Francisco Examiner previously reported.

And after it was disclosed the fire department failed to complete hundreds of investigations in 2015, Breed told KQED that if she were mayor, “I would hire a new chief.”

Her campaign’s statement Friday was quite a reversal.

There’s at least one reason why backing off Hayes-White may be a good idea: The fire chief’s Irish roots are well-known and much beloved among some Irish, old-school San Francisco voters West of Twin Peaks.

And since this election is “goin’ 90,” in Irish parlance (read: very fast), every vote counts.

Whether you think Breed was on the level or take her statement with a heavy dose of salt, she still walked away from a firefighter’s candidate forum Thursday with thunderous applause — and the endorsement of Local 798.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at joe@sfexaminer.com, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez
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