Mayor Breed’s nominees for SFMTA board win support in committee

Sharon Lai and Jane Natoli await approval from full Board of Supervisors

After months of delay, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board may soon get two new members.

The Board of Supervisors Rules Committee on Monday supported the two most recent nominees to San Francisco’s transit board, recommending them for approval by the full Board of Supervisors.

Sharon Lai and Jane Natoli, nominated by Mayor London Breed in April and June, respectively, would fill two vacant spots on the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors, which currently has only four of its seven seats filled. The board was unable to meet last week because it could not reach quorum.

Lai is a Chinese-American immigrant with 15 years of urban planning work under her belt. She told the committee she believes a robust public transportation system is a basic right, and the needs of those who don’t have any other options should be prioritized.

“My lived experience has left an appreciation for the impact the absence of dependable mobility can have on quality of life and student achievement,” she said.

The city planner turned commercial real estate development director pointed to her experience working with multiple stakeholders, and emphasized her readiness to partner with community-based organizations to come up with creative solutions to SFMTA’s pressing challenges.

Natoli described herself as an advocate for safe streets with experience engaging and mobilizing local communities. A former board member of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Natoli also sits on the Citizens’ General Obligation Bond Oversight Committee, where she says she’s learned about the “inner workings” of city government.

“I come to it not necessarily knowing every corner of what SFMTA does, but I come with the humility to know that,” she said.

The victim of three traffic violence collisions in the last four years, Natoli said she supports the expansion of quick, affordable treatments that make it easier for people to bike and walk safely. She also suggested more should be done to regulate rideshare companies that threaten local taxi drivers’ livelihoods and, like Lai, affirmed the need to make transit accessible and safe for The City’s most vulnerable communities.

Committee Chair Hillary Ronen pressed the two nominees on fare hikes, a point of conflict between the Board of Supervisors and previous board members. The Board of Supervisors rejected the re-appointment of former SFMTA Board member Cristina Rubke earlier this year after she voted in favor of an agency budget that included fare increases to help balance the shortfall created by COVID-19.

Ronen asked Natoli and Lai to commit to vote against any proposal that included raising the price of Muni during the pandemic and as part of the agency’s recovery plan; both agreed.

Lai advocated for SFMTA moving away from its focus on farebox recovery ratios, which quantify how much of the operating budget is paid for through rider fares. Natoli similarly called for the agency to identify new dependable revenue streams that don’t necessitate fare hikes for budget stability.

Both Lai and Natoli received significant support during public comment, including from WalkSF and the Bicycle Coalition.

Many who spoke during public comment referred to how Natoli, who would be the first “out” transgender person to serve on the board, and Lai, a first-generation Asian American and parent with young children, would diversify SFMTA’s governing body and better equip it to respond to the challenges faced by some of San Francisco’s less-represented communities.

Ronen said when she first spoke with Natoli months ago, she didn’t believe the street safety advocate had enough experience, but she commended Natoli on the work she’d done in the interim to get up to speed.

The chairwoman qualified her support Monday with the disclaimer she’d speak with the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club, which is opposed to Natoli’s nomination, to better understand their concerns.

The Board of Supervisors will consider the nominations next, likely at next Tuesday’s meeting.

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