Utilities commission votes to oust general manager ‘without cause’

The governing board for the city agency that oversees San Francisco’s power, water and sewage voted behind closed doors Wednesday to fire — “without cause” — the department’s general manager, in order to allow Mayor Gavin Newsom’s new appointment to take over the job.

Susan Leal, appointed by Newsom to head the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission in 2004, had served 3½ years of her five-year contract.

“It’s a change of policy and direction,” commission President Ann Moller Caen told reporters after a nine-minute meeting in which the four-person board reached its decision. “That’s why it’s without cause.”

The commission’s decision means Leal is entitled to a payout that will cost The City roughly $400,000, according to a recent report by city budget analyst Harvey Rose.

After the meeting, commissioner Dennis Normandy said the decision to terminate Leal’s contract would be discussed publicly at the commission’s next meeting on Feb. 26.

Commissioners are appointed by the mayor, and Mayor Gavin Newsom announced at the beginning of this year that he wanted City Controller Ed Harrington to replace Leal.

On Wednesday, Newsom declined to discuss Leal’s termination, which his spokesman, Nathan Ballard, described as a “personnel matter.”

Bringing in Harrington would “bring fiscal discipline to the PUC” and “usher in a new era of cooperation and collaboration” between the PUC and the Mayor’s Office, Ballard said.

Leal did not attend the commission meeting. Shortly after the vote, she held a news conference at which she said she hadn’t spoken to Newsom or his chief of staff about his decision to replace her since his Jan. 4 announcement. She didn’t know why she was ousted, she said.

“I’ve given up speculating,” Leal said. The $258,000-per-year department head also touted her achievements as head of the 2,000-person department.

Under Leal, the SFPUC has drafted a multibillion-dollar plan to rebuild The City’s thousand-mile sewerage network, as well as forged ahead with a $4.3 billion plan to rebuild the system’s pipes and dams in order to protect the water supply of 2.4 million Bay Area residents from earthquakes. The agency also completed negotiations to build a lesser-polluting power plant to replace an aging plant in Potrero Hill.

According to the terms of her contract and termination, Leal will remain general manager for another month. She said she plans to spend that time preparing the department and its projects for the new manager.

jupton@examiner.com

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