Advocates say a commission would provide accountability for efforts to combat homelessness. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Board backs away from homeless commission vote in face of opposition from mayor

Breed ‘heavily influenced’ decision to push measure to March 2020 ballot

Facing pressure from Mayor London Breed, the Board of Supervisors failed on Tuesday to place a charter amendment on the November ballot to create a commission to oversee The City’s three-year-old homeless department.

Introduced by Supervisor Matt Haney, the charter amendment would have asked voters to approve the creation of a seven-member commission, similar to the commissions that oversee other city departments like police, planning and rec and park.

But Breed resisted the proposal, arguing the commission would slow down The City’s efforts to address the growing challenges of homelessness and create more bureaucracy. It would also have reduced her political power.

Haney, who argued that the increased oversight would make the The City’s efforts to fight homelessness more effective, had five votes including his own heading into the meeting with the backing of Supervisors Aaron Peskin, Hillary Ronen, Gordon Mar and Shamann Walton.

He had made changes to address concerns, including eliminating a provision that gave the body the power to approve or disapprove of shelters as well as the power to determine eligibility criteria for who is eligible for services. But it wasn’t enough.

Members of the board who opposed the measure said they would be willing to work to place a similar measure on the March ballot and voted to change the date to the March election, before referring the measure back to committee for further discussion.

After the vote, Haney said he was “disappointed that a majority of colleagues were not supportive of increased accountability” for the department.

“There was very strong opposition from the Mayor’s Office and I think that heavily influenced the board’s decision today,” he said.

Board of Supervisors President Norman Yee said he “still has some concerns” about the measure, such as how it would function with other existing homeless advisory bodies.

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman said the commission would pose challenges since, unlike other commissions, the mayor wouldn’t appoint all or a majority of the members.

Under the proposal, the board would appoint three members and the mayor three. The seventh member would be appointed by the City Controller.

Mandelman said right now residents and elected officials know who to hold responsible: Jeff Kositsky, the department’s current director, and Breed. But the commission would make that responsibility blurry. He predicted 3-3 votes between the board appointees and the mayor’s, leaving it to the City Controller’s appointee to break the tie and “direct homelessness policy in this city.”

He said that “strikes me as a profoundly bad idea.”

The measure would have gone on the same ballot on which Breed is up re-election.

Jeff Cretan, a spokesperson for Breed, said that “the Mayor has been clear about her concerns with this measure and she looks forward to continuing to work with the Board to move forward solutions to help those suffering on our streets.”

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, which supports the measure, said, “We would have obviously preferred it to go on the November ballot.”

But facing not enough votes, she said they “would rather it be continued to the March ballot than killed altogether.”

“The mayor fought really hard against it,” Friedenbach said, adding that Breed “made a lot of phone calls” and was “very aggressively opposing it.”

“They haven’t provided any substantive reason for not having it. I think what it boils down to is power,” she said.

The board’s decision came despite an appeal by Ronen to her colleagues, citing the complaints she has to deal with on a regular basis from residents in the Mission District.

“Things are getting much worse,” Ronen said. “We have no oversight or accountability for this department and it has got to change.”

The City’s homeless population has increased by 30 percent since 2017, to a total of 9,784 homeless residents.

Backers of forming the commission suggested Breed’s opposition was hypocritical considering her previous positions.

Last year Breed opposed Proposition C, a tax on the largest businesses to fund homeless services, which voters approved. She said in a statement at the time that “our homelessness spending has increased dramatically in recent years with no discernible improvement in conditions.”

“Before we double the tax bill overnight, San Franciscans deserve accountability for the money they are already paying,” she said then.

Breed, meanwhile, increased spending on homeless services in her city budget proposal, which grew the department’s current fiscal year budget by $80 million for a total of $365 million.

A commission, Haney argued, would bring that accountability Breed said was lacking, and he vowed to follow through to bring it to voters in March.

“We’ve got a crisis on our streets, and a crisis of accountability at City Hall,” Haney said. “This commission is a real solution, and I believe the voters will support it when it makes it to the ballot.”

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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