City Attorney Dennis Herrera at an Election Day luncheon at John's Grill on Tuesday, June 5, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Voters may get a chance to choose a new city attorney this fall

Uncertain timing means election could be pushed to June 2022

San Francisco may hold a local election to coincide with the statewide recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom this fall to give voters a chance to choose a new assessor-recorder and city attorney.

But while any such election would definitely include an assessor-recorder contest, it’s less clear whether the next city attorney would actually be on the ballot.

That’s because the timing of the current city attorney’s departure remains uncertain.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen introduced a resolution Tuesday that begins the process of calling a local election for The City after Newsom’s recall qualified for the ballot on Monday.

No date has been set for the recall election, but it is expected to occur sometime in November or early December.

The City is not required to hold a local election at the same time, but Ronen said it is important to give voters a say on who will serve as city attorney as soon as possible.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera announced with Mayor London Breed Monday that he plans to step down from his position and become the general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

Breed would appoint his successor, who would then have to run for office during the fall election if appointed at least 120 days before it occurs. However, if the appointment occurs within 120 days of the election or less, then that person wouldn’t run for election until June 2022, giving them a longer time to establish themselves in their position and making it arguably more difficult for challengers to take them on.

It is unclear when Herrera intends to step down from his post, but the confirmation process for him to serve as SFPUC’s head is expected to take months.

Supervisor Dean Preston sent a letter of inquiry to Herrera Tuesday asking him to respond to a number of questions by May 3 related to his decision including: “On what date do you plan to vacate your seat? Please describe any factors that might impact the timing, and describe any communications or agreements with the mayor of the timing of your vacating your seat.”

Preston and other board members have expressed concerns over the fact that Herrera is leaving at a time when his office is investigating public corruption based on information uncovered by the federal probe of former Public Works head Mohammed Nuru. That probe has widened to implicate a number of city officials and city contractors.

“The fact that the mayor will be appointing someone to head the office that is investigating her administration raises obvious concerns,” Preston wrote.

Supervisor Matt Haney, who supports Ronen’s resolution, said while it’s not certain the timing would place the city attorney contest on the fall ballot, “we should be preparing for it.”

He said the city attorney should be accountable to the voters, and it would be nine months before voters would have a say if it doesn’t make the fall ballot. “That’s a long time for an unelected, appointed city attorney,” Haney said.

Ronen said there is more than enough time for Herrera’s nomination to go through and for the appointment to be in place 120 days before the election.

“So we as the public have no question that the city attorney is independent from the Mayor’s Office and can fulfill his or her duty to be a watchdog for public integrity, we need the voters to decide quickly who that person will be,” she said.

Herrera’s move is only the latest shakeup of top ranking officials as a result of the federal corruption probe in City Hall, which became public in January 2020 with the arrest of Nuru, who has been charged with fraud.

Herrera would fill the post vacated by former SFPUC head Harlan Kelly, who was accused as part of the Nuru corruption investigation with accepting a bribe from a city contractor. Kelly’s wife, Naomi Kelly, resigned from her post as city administrator amid the allegations but does not face charges.

Breed appointed Assessor-Recorder Carmen Chu to replace Naomi Kelly as city administrator and then appointed Office of Economic and Workforce head Joaquín Torres to serve as assessor-recorder. Torres would also stand for election in a fall local election.

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