Sharon Lai was appointed to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board on Tuesday, but two vacancies still remain to be filled. (Ellie Doyen/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Supervisors block mayor’s nominee for SFMTA board — again

Sharon Lai unanimously accepted, Jane Natoli rejected 6-4

Sharon Lai, a former city planner turned development director, will soon be sworn in as the fifth member of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Board of Directors after the Board of Supervisors confirmed her appointment with unanimous support Tuesday.

But a second mayoral nominee, Jane Natoli, was rejected in a 6-4 vote. Supervisors Hillary Ronen, Matt Haney, Catherine Stefani and Rafael Mandelman voted in favor of her appointment, while Supervisor Ahsha Safai was absent.

Both Natoli and Lai received unanimous recommendation for approval last week from the Rules Committee after waiting for a hearing since their respective appointments in April and June.

However Natoli, a full-time financial crimes analyst, housing activist and former board member of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, drew letters of opposition received from a number of community groups including the Rose Pak Democratic Club, the Chinatown Transportation Research and Improvement Project, the Tenderloin People’s Congress, Richmond District Rising, and the Transit Justice Coalition.

The Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club’s letter said Natoli’s appointment “reeks of political quid-pro-quo for supporting the mayor, and is not supported by substantive expertise or merit on the issues that matter.” It pointed to Natoli’s support for “for-profit mobility devices” and “signaling of support for a Muni fare increase” as examples of a “robust online presence” that “raises multiple concerns about her ability to respond effectively to marginalized voices.”

Ronen, chair of the Rules Committee, obtained a commitment from Natoli to oppose fare increases at last week’s hearing. She voted to support Natoli’s confirmation Tuesday, though she said she was “going out on a limb in doing so” after hearing concerns from community groups.

Brian Wiedenmeier, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition, told the Examiner his experience working alongside Natoli didn’t line up with the claims from her opponents.

“My experience working with Jane is that she has deep respect for people who are struggling to get by in San Francisco and depend on our transit system,” he said.

Supervisor Gordon Mar, who voted to recommend Natoli on the Rules Committee, said the grassroots, volunteer organizations that wrote in opposition of her nomination can’t be ignored.

“These are exactly the communities that are most dependent on public transportation, and whose needs should be centered at SFMTA, and on the SFMTA Board of Directors,” he said. “These are the communities who have gone unheard in conversations about social and racial equity for transit, who have been ignored and marginalized time and time again.”

Mayor London Breed, however, who appointed both candidates, had other ideas about the supervisors’ motives.

“The Board of Supervisors’ decision to reject the nomination of Jane Natoli for the SFMTA Board is a deeply cynical move that represents what is wrong with San Francisco politics. And, let’s be clear, this is simply about politics,” she said in a statement.

The Board of Supervisors also rejected the mayor’s re-nomination of former SFMTA Board member Cristina Rubke in May after she voted in favor of Muni fare increases.

Lai, the Chinese-American daughter of immigrants, received praise from a “super supportive” Supervisor Aaron Peskin for her outreach to “transportation equity organizations.” Peskin was among those voting against Natoli.

Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, who also opposed Natoli’s appointment, said she was glad there would finally be a Chinese speaker on the SFMTA Board to represent the community’s voice and advocate for its needs.

Natoli would have been the first openly transgender person to serve on the SFMTA Board.

The long delay in filling vacancies has had consequences for the SFMTA board, which normally has seven members.

For the last several months, it’s been operating with just four, the minimum number of members that must be present to conduct business and the minimum number of affirmative votes required to pass a measure, per the SFMTA charter.

That means every measure has needed unanimous support and every member must be in attendance for the board to make quorum.

Lai’s confirmation will improve the board’s ability to govern, but it will still have two vacant seats waiting to be filled by mayoral nominees subject to the Board of Supervisors’ confirmation.

“It will now be up to Mayor Breed to nominate someone equally as qualified and for the board to hear that nominee with haste,” Wiedenmeier said of Natoli’s rejection. “SFMTA needs a functioning board in order for our transportation system to have any hope of recovering.”

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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