Admirable city attorney must quit before run at mayor

Let the record show that Dennis Herrera has been a fine city attorney for San Francisco, a strong advocate for consumer rights and vigilant watchdog for the role of good government.

Let the record also show that Herrera has proved himself to be a man of high principle, honest and generally even-handed when it comes to representing The City, its myriad clients and juggling its often-complex litigation.

And for the record, let me add that I personally like Herrera, find him to be extremely bright and personable, and believe that, along with Supervisor Bevan Dufty, he would be among the best and most capable candidates for mayor when Gavin Newsom leaves office.

Yet despite that, if Herrera wants to remain a declared candidate for mayor and start raising money for that campaign, he must resign as city attorney.

When he made his announcement last month that he was entering the mayor’s race late, Herrera sent a thoughtfully prepared seven-page memo to Newsom, the Board of Supervisors, and members of the Elections and Ethics commissions outlining how he planned to limit his role in legal matters relating to elections and campaign finance issues while he’s running. The memo also outlined how he planned to follow a number of protocols to remove him from any involvement in the November 2010 or 2011 election campaigns.

But the reason he wrote the memo is the same reason he must step down: Herrera has a direct conflict in so many areas of city government and politics that he can’t properly do the job for which he was elected while running for mayor.

Herrera’s office represents every city department and its individual members. One of them, Dufty, is already a candidate for mayor and at least two others are rumored to be: Assessor Phil Ting and Public Defender Jeff Adachi. Herrera said he would “adopt a screen” to remove him from any participation in election-related matters while he’s a candidate for mayor. But how can a city attorney whose office has authored all the legislation for the board, including controversial topics such as The City’s sanctuary policy, say he’s not involved when those issues come up during his campaign?

That’s just scratching the surface of the potential conflicts. As city attorney, Herrera can’t endorse local candidates or ballot measures. We would potentially have a candidate running for mayor without any public knowledge of his political ties and interests.

As it is, Herrera has already personally intervened and changed the makeup of the Board of Supervisors by rather curiously and voraciously taking extra steps to stop Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier from running for another term, allowing candidate Janet Reilly to emerge as a potential successor — someone with personal ties to the city attorney.

Yet, the pileup of potential conflicts is not an issue, Herrera said. He told me that I could not be more wrong on this, and that his candidacy is no different from any of the state attorneys general (Dan Lungren, Jerry Brown) who have run for governor while in office. And he said that while he can’t endorse as a city attorney, he fully plans to make his positions known as a private citizen running for mayor — a tricky step if ever there was one.

“Voters will know where I stand on issues,” Herrera told me. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be running.”

Moreover, he said, a former city attorney in Los Angeles, James Hahn, ran and was elected mayor while serving in office.

But Los Angeles doesn’t have the same form of government as small-town San Francisco, and only one city attorney in the modern era has even considered a run for mayor while in office. That was Louise Renne, who was appointed city attorney by then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein, and then ignored Feinstein’s pleas and ran for mayor.

Renne was in the race only briefly, before going on to serve a fine career as city attorney.

Next year, Herrera’s office will be involved in redrawing lines for district supervisor boundaries — yet another action that poses political conflicts for his candidacy.

He says he’s outlined the potential conflicts in his memo to guard against such possibilities.

That’s exactly the problem, and seven pages only begins to address it. For a city attorney, it’s too much to guard against.

Ken Garcia appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Examiner. Check out his blog at or e-mail him at

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