After Muni’s rough month, city leaders consider restructuring agency’s leadership

April has been a rough month for Muni riders, the transit system itself, and its parent entity the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

Now, the Board of Supervisors is asking — Should SFMTA’s leadership go?

That doesn’t necessarily mean the agency’s director, Ed Reiskin, should be dismissed — though that’s something they’re discussing. But city leaders are also asking more basic structural questions about the agency’s Board of Directors, wondering if it should be disbanded, reconstituted, or otherwise changed to provide stricter oversight over Muni.

Eight out of 11 members of the Board of Supervisors told the San Francisco Examiner that SFMTA’s leadership needs to change — though none were settled on how, yet.

“It seems beyond question that the SFMTA is broken,” said Supervisor Rafael Mandelman. Mandelman represents the Castro, which was particularly hard-hit by a subway service outage Friday.

Mandelman emphasized that the supervisors should move deliberately and explore what’s wrong in-depth, first.

“Whoever ends up leading SFMTA and whatever the structure is, I think we need to better understand what all is broken over there,” he said.

Muni made the news repeatedly in April as problems continued to mount: Defective doors on its new trains locked on a woman’s hand and dragged her to the tracks; defective couplers on the new trains forced the agency to not run them in two or three-car configurations; a Muni training employee told KPIX that his manager pressured him to pass dangerous drivers; Muni operators exposed how deeply the agency relies on overtime to meet runs while they suffer an operator shortage, and, last but far from least, a downed power wire brought Muni’s subway service to a halt for most of Friday. Roughly 160,000 riders were impacted by the service outage from morning to night.

“This week has been tremendously bad for them,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who represents Chinatown and North Beach, said of Muni on Friday.

Peskin is also the chair of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority Board, which provides some funding to SFMTA. He said he fielded questions and comments from his colleagues all Friday following the subway service outage, asking what could be done about SFMTA.

The agency’s leadership structure clearly needs to change, Peskin said.

“Their board is rubber stamping things,” Peskin alleged of the SFMTA Board of Directors, which has oversight over Muni.

Then-mayor Gavin Newsom put Proposition E on the ballot in 1999, which created the modern SFMTA as we know it today as an umbrella for myriad agencies, from the Department of Parking and Traffic, to the San Francisco Municipal Railway and eventually the Taxi Commission.

The logic was to improve coordination on street decisions. Why should Muni add a bus stop where The City plans to tear up the street to install a bike lane, for instance?

While many transit proponents point to the success of that model, which was fairly unique in the United States when it first launched, Peskin said the SFMTA Board of Directors needs to behave more aggressively.

Notably, that board is now appointed by the mayor only, a structure which usually fosters more agreement in The City’s commissions than contentious democratic debate. Such debate occurs frequently in other commissions, critics have said, like the Planning Commission, which has split appointments between the Board of Supervisors and Mayor’s Office.

The SFMTA board rarely, if ever, votes “no” on a proposal.

A 2016 ballot effort to split SFMTA appointments failed, but now the supervisorsappear ready to revist the idea.

Supervisor Sandra Fewer, who represents the Richmond District, voiced support for restructuring the SFMTA in some fashion.

“Time to put it on the ballot again,” Fewer told the Examiner.

“I’m open to anything that will make Muni reliable,” Supervisor Vallie Brown said.

Some supervisors point to the top, at Reiskin, the SFMTA’s director.

Supervisor Gordon Mar, who represents the Sunset District, said “I believe we need a leadership change at SFMTA given the seriousness and frequency of service problems impacting the hundreds of thousands of riders who rely on Muni and deserve better.”

But the supervisors cannot remove Reiskin from his job.

Legally, that obligation falls to the SFMTA Board of Directors, which has demonstrated support for Reiskin in the past. And if he were somehow dismissed, he would be entitled to a severance package which may be politically unpopular. Reiskin’s predecessor Nathaniel Ford left amid a cloud of dissatisfaction but also with a $384,000 payment. Reiskin earned $327,293 annually as of 2017, according to Transparent California, a database of California salaries.

Reiskin’s contract ends August 14 this year, according to public documents. Discussions around his reappointment may be a rocky.

“It is overly concerning that SFMTA continues to drop the ball in many areas of ensuring transportation in SF is world class,” said Supervisor Shamann Walton, who represents the Bayview and Potrero Hill, among other neighborhoods, which were also impacted by subway service outages.

Supervisor Catherine Stefani, who represents the Marina, Laurel Heights and Pacific Heights neighborhoods, agreed.

“We definitely need to take action, because the status quo is not acceptable,” she said.

joe@sfexaminer.com

This article has been corrected to state Mayor Newsom put proposition E on the ballot in 1999, not the Board of Supervisors.

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