Editorial: Emergency services done right

It had to happen. Annemarie Conroy’s newest sinecure came under fire this week from the Board of Supervisors, which relieved the chief of the Office of Emergency Services and Homeland Security of the $185,000-a-year post. That job may have been created as a favor for Laura Phillips, the head of the agency that oversees the OESHS, the Department of Emergency Communications.

These doings are mildly absorbing to people who watch City Hall as a soap opera. The revolving Conroy-Phillips jobs do look like a subplot in the long melodrama pitting the supervisors against the mayor. And, yes, Mayor Gavin Newsom’s re-elected nemesis Chris Daly chaired the panel that recommended mayoral ally Conroy’s ouster.

Now, it’s true that Daly carries his own anti-business baggage, but he happens to be right about this unbusiness-like embarrassment. Did we mention that, with benefits, Conroy’s compensation package swells to a quarter-million dollars? That’s one fourth the discretionary funding Washington sends to San Francisco to secure us against natural disasters and terrorism.

These offices have a serious reason for their existence and — shouldn’t it be obvious? — are not to be filled as political patronage. Still, in 2004 Newsom appointed Conroy, whose résumé showed little background in emergency services, in a shuffle he thought would give him an advantage over his supervisorial foes. This year a management audit criticized Conroy’s leadership, prompting Newsom to name Phillips, a Motorola executive, to run The City’s Department of Emergency Communications, overseeing the fiefdom of her supposed deputy, Conroy.

So who was really senior, Conroy or Phillips? City Hall watchers wanted to know. Along came a tantalizing resolution: someone to chair the wonderfully named Super Urban Area Security Initiative Committee, which decides how federal homeland security money gets spent in the Bay Area.

Friendship? Rivalry? More like convenience. We don’t know why exactly, but Phillips apparently could think of no one other than Conroy to slide into such an exquisitely opportune position. If that was an easy call for Phillips, it was also fruit both low-hanging and plump for the Board of Supervisors, whose president, Aaron Peskin, wanted to know why Phillips didn’t delegate herself to the SUASIC.

That is a perfectly reasonable question, and it should presage serious housecleaning at The City’s emergency services bureaucracy. And wouldn’t we love it if Peskin scouted the entire municipality for other redundant jobs? San Francisco, we needn’t remind anyone, is under constant threat of earthquakes and other natural disasters. And there is the looming threat of terrorism, which sometimes seems like an afterthought within the emergency services bureaucracy.

Distressingly, we don’t get the sense that authentic public service, a quaint notion perhaps, factored into any of these personnel maneuvers. The civil grand jury in May recommended a medical professional be placed in charge. It’s time to move past politics and heed such well-considered ideas.

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