PUC caught in crossfire between mayor and Board of Supervisors

Major construction work on The City’s water and sewer systems will be undertaken by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, and voters this June will decide how much power the mayor has to pick the members of the board governing the agency.

In November, Mayor Gavin Newsom announced that he would replace then-director Susan Leal with Ed Harrington, The City’s controller at the time. Harrington stepped into the new position on April 1.

In response, city legislators approved Proposition E, a June ballot measure that would require the mayor’s appointments to the SFPUC be approved by a majority of the Board of Supervisors. The measure, approved 9-2, would also set qualifications for each of the five positions.

This is not the first time city legislators have worked to shift some of the appointment power for city commissions away from the mayor. In 2002 and 2003, voters passing two board-sponsored charter amendments that gave authority to the supervisors to appoint a minority of members on the Planning Commission and Police Commission, respectively.

A vote on Proposition E comes at a time when the commission has several major projects in front of it. This year, the commission is slated to receive environmental impact reports on the first phases of a $4.3 billion project to renovate the water and power system’s tunnels, reservoirs and pipes, according to Harrington.

The commission also has to approve a plan for a $3 billion-plus sewer-system fix, and make determinations on a controversial new power plant in Potrero Hill.

Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, who put the proposition on the ballot, said the multibillion-dollar projects are all the more reason to set minimum qualifications for commission members.

Opponents argued, however, that the measure also lowers the threshold of rejection from eight to six supervisors, which could turn each appointment into a political battle.

Eric Jaye, a political consultant to Newsom, said the mayor opposes the measure. He said politics played a part in a recent decision by the supervisors to reject one of Newsom’s appointments and barely approve another.

dsmith@examiner.com

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