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Reiskin hangs on to his job, avoids firing —for now

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Ed Reiskin, director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, speaks during a meeting of the SFMTA Board of Directors at City Hall on Tuesday, August 21, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

In the first public opportunity for The City’s transportation board to oust or chastise Muni’s embattled head honcho, the board opted instead to show their support.

On Monday Mayor London Breed issued a fiery letter condemning the leadership of Ed Reiskin, the head of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, laying a litany of issues at his feet, including a citywide Muni slowdown stranding thousands of riders, and a failure to properly vet the safety record of Shimmick Construction, a contractor repairing the Twin Peaks Tunnel.

Insiders told the San Francisco Examiner this looked like a precursor to ousting Reiskin. But, importantly, Breed can’t fire him.

Instead, that responsibility rests with the SFMTA Board of Directors, who in a closed-door session conducted Reiskin’s annual job performance evaluation Tuesday.

While the results of the evaluation are confidential, the board voiced its support for him at its public meeting Tuesday.

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“If you look back over what he’s accomplished in his seven years in that position, he’s done a really good job,” Cheryl Brinkman, chair of the SFMTA board, told the Examiner, after Reiskin’s evaluation. “People forget how much he’s accomplished.”

Brinkman said Reiskin was responsible for a “culture shift” away from the leadership of former SFMTA head Nathanial Ford, who in news reports was lambasted by the community among heated Muni operator contracts and flagging Muni service. Despite substantial Muni service gaps the past few months, reliability has not dipped to the low levels seen during Ford’s tenure, according to public records. Under Reiskin, Brinkman said, SFMTA employees feel “empowered” to pursue bold ideas.

When asked why she believes in Reiskin despite recent harsh public critiques — even from the mayor — she answered, “It’s hard, the intangibles of people. They are who they are. The person he is, is a good leader, he’s humble. He has a sense of humility about him, but he’s also incredibly intelligent.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Reiskin personally and publicly apologized for the agency’s failures, the first time he has done so, according to the SFMTA.

“I know this has been a rough couple weeks and months,” Reiskin said. “I want to acknowledge there’s been frustration out there from the riders and the community.”

Reiskin said he “takes responsibility for” not adequately preparing for the various pressures Muni would face on its operators, which eventually led to an operator shortage that left riders across The City stranded.

“I apologize,” he said.

That operator shortage was first revealed in an investigation by the San Francisco Examiner. Riders across The City reported waits up to 40 minutes for buses, but riders mostly complained about their own commutes — the 38-Geary or 5-Fulton, for instance. When the Examiner heard numerous complaints it conducted a public records request for Muni service data, and crunched the numbers, only to find that more than 1,000 hours of service a day were being missed.

That’s about a thousand bus trips missed each a day, leading to crowded buses and long waits across San Francisco.

Muni operators were stretched thin across the system due to the Twin Peaks Tunnel shutdown, which required additional buses to run as replacement shuttles for Muni trains that utilize the tunnel, at the same time as operators were needed for service boosts across The City. Some critics called the crisis a “perfect storm” of events.

But troubles at SFMTA kept snowballing when Patrick Ricketts, a signal technician for Shimmick Construction, died after a steel beam struck him earlier this month. Shimmick did not fully reveal its history of “serious and willful” safety violations to the SFMTA when it bid for the Twin Peaks Tunnel contract, an investigation by the Examiner revealed.

Breed lambasted Reiskin for the service slowdown and contract woes in her Monday letter.

“In the weeks since I took the mayoral oath of office, a number of challenges have come to light related to the SFMTA and Muni service,” Breed’s letter reads. “Perhaps most significant are service reductions that should have been anticipated and mitigated. But I am also seriously concerned about the lack of background checks performed on major construction contractors and an opaque process to select scooter pilot permit recipients.”

Former mayor Art Agnos told the Examiner if he had written such a letter, it most certainly would have implied “termination” was imminent.

Though Breed cannot fire Reiskin, she does appoint the seven-members comprising the SFMTA board who, with a majority of four votes, could fire Reiskin. Insiders familiar with the board said on background that SFMTA board members Art Torres and Gwyneth Borden were likely to side with Breed’s call for change, and one vacancy on the board means Breed could fill it with someone open to firing Reiskin.

In her letter, Breed said she would be evaluating Reiskin’s performance — and by all counts she will have the votes to follow through on ousting Reiskin in a year, due to various members coming up for reappointment, should she find Reiskin lacking.

Torres and Borden declined to comment. After the evaluation, SFMTA board member Cristina Rubke said she had faith in Reiskin’s leadership, and SFMTA Board of Directors Vice Chair Malcolm Heinicke said “Ed still has my trust that he can lead this agency.”

Outside his evaluation, Reiskin said Breed has not told him she was shopping for a replacement.

“She’s not made any such indication to me,” Reiskin told reporters.

Reiskin, the former head of San Francisco Public Works, was tapped to lead SFMTA and its now $4 billion annual budget in 2011. He makes $342,483 annually, about $40,000 more than the late Mayor Ed Lee did in 2017.

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