One of San Francisco’s top emergency officials is facing criticism from the highest levels of city government after the San Francisco Examiner discovered he was absent nearly half the time from disaster response operations and led them “virtually” from Sacramento since 2016.
This virtual work, combined with an out-of-state lobbying trip, showed Department of Emergency Management Deputy Director Mike Dayton prominently absent during a citywide power outage in April and a record-setting heat wave in September, when emergency operations coordinated life-saving resources for The City.
Dayton helped plan The City’s “emergency operations center” during those emergencies, records show, and DEM staff described Dayton’s presence as key to his role.
But records point to Dayton’s tendency to work from home, 87 miles from San Francisco, in Sacramento, which Mayor Ed Lee’s office said is unacceptable during emergencies.
“The City has worked hard to develop virtual command and control capabilities given the nature of unplanned emergencies,” Deirdre Hussey, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office, said in a statement to the Examiner.
“That said, the mayor expects city senior leadership to be onsite at the Emergency Operating Center in the event of ongoing emergency.”
Supervisor Jane Kim echoed that sentiment. “Someone with that type of position … should live in San Francisco,” she said.
Dayton earns $176,371 annually, according to the nonprofit Transparent California.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Emergency “activations” are the heart of a city’s coordinated effort in a crisis. That’s when DEM staff is assembled to help determine where city resources — from cooling centers opened in a heat wave, to public outreach during a power outage — are needed and how that’s communicated to residents.
Dayton is often responsible for heading those emergency operations centers, yet records show he is not in the room during those key crises. He has either worked “virtually” by phone and email, or pre-planned an emergency operations center activations — but not run them — five out of the 11 days that the center was unexpectedly activated since January 2016, according to records obtained by the Examiner.
The Examiner reviewed records, including keycard office entry logs, emails and sign-in sheets for both planned emergency activations, like during Super Bowl 50 or Fleet Week, and unplanned emergency activations, like the active shooter at the UPS center on June 14.
Dayton’s attendance record is iron-clad at the emergency operations center during the planned activations. His absences span only unplanned activations.
“As long as we’re communicating, there’s not a difference to me,” between working virtually or physically in the emergency operations center, Dayton said.
However, should San Francisco experience an earthquake similar to the 6.9-magnitude Loma Prieta, or worse, which could render both the Golden Gate and Bay bridges uncrossable, emergency officials would call on “helicopters” to transport Dayton to San Francisco, Anne Kronenberg, executive director of the Department of Emergency Management, clarified during an Oct. 10 interview at DEM headquarters.
Dayton confirmed he would rely on air transport during an earthquake. “Yes, helicopters,” he said.
“I know where the state agencies are and who has aviation assets, thankfully,” he said.
That answer didn’t sit well with city leaders.
Board of Supervisors President London Breed said if Dayton arranged a flight to San Francisco by helicopter, paid for by taxpayers or other emergency funding, she “would do everything in my power to make sure that department doesn’t get another dime.”
ABSENCES IMPACT THE CITY
One of Dayton’s absences was due to a planned trip with Kronenberg to Washington, D.C., to lobby for funding of the Urban Areas Security Initiative program, which provides vital grants across California emergency agencies.
It was during that April trip that San Francisco lost power for 88,000 PG&E customers, and DEM’s emergency operations center was unexpectedly activated.
DEM Chief of Staff David Ebarle ran the show in Dayton’s absence. However, Kim and Supervisor Aaron Peskin were not notified of the emergency operations to help coordinate aid to residents in their districts, a failure later pinned on DEM.
“If this was a test for our city’s response to a massive power outage and how agencies communicate with each other in an emergency, I would say that we have failed,” Breed said during a May hearing on the power outage.
Ebarle was reassigned amid the controversy. He now serves as an emergency medical services specialist for the Department of Public Health.
Sources on background said Ebarle, who has previously received public praise for his efforts from Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom when Newsom was mayor of San Francisco, was sacrificed for the department’s failures.
Kronenberg denied Ebarle was reassigned duties due to his performance during the power outage, but could not comment on his reassignment due to personnel laws.
DEM officials also were criticized by the Board of Supervisors for not activating cooling centers sooner during the Labor Day heat wave that saw San Francisco roasting at a record-breaking 106 degrees downtown, which later resulted in three deaths.
“Everything we’re hearing is that … we should have done that on Thursday, and we should have done it on Friday morning, and we did it on Saturday,” Peskin told DEM and other officials during a September hearing on the heat wave.
During DEM’s unexpected emergency activation Sept. 1 and 2, Dayton worked “virtually,” according to DEM records. He said he was in Sacramento.
“I certainly want to move to San Francisco and intend to,” he said. “I am fortunate enough I have family here that I can stay with, and do.”
Peskin said that under former Mayor Willie Brown, department heads were required to live in San Francisco, a rule that perhaps should apply to deputy department heads, too.
Sources on background have speculated Dayton is the heir apparent to replace Kronenberg when she retires.
At that point, Peskin said, Dayton “should move to San Francisco.”
Dayton has worked as acting secretary and undersecretary of the California Emergency Management Agency, according to the Governor’s Office.
He also worked as chief of staff for Congressman Gary Condit the former California congressman embroiled in controversy after the death of intern Chandra Levy.
Dayton’s political experience made him uniquely qualified to join Kronenberg on their April trip to the nation’s Capitol to advocate for funding, she said.