Waiting for Newsom’s ax to fall

As the new year commences, City Hall is in a kind of post-holiday limbo as it awaits Mayor Gavin Newsom’s self-appointed Monday deadline to “accept” any of the hundreds of resignation letters he demanded in September from every San Francisco department head and commissioner.

This newspaper gave Newsom’s surprise edict a mixed review. We agreed that the mayor was fully entitled to make sweeping changes at the start of a second term, and we strongly supported the concept that some top city officials really ought to be replaced expeditiously. On the other hand, we thought the across-the-board resignation letter was undiplomatic overkill that would unnecessarily injure morale at better-run municipal offices. Better to have quietly sought only the resignations of those he finally decided to dump.

In any case, what’s done is done. Now is the time for Newsom to drop the second shoe and put an end to the ongoing atmosphere of confusion. Ever-optimistic spokesman Nathan Ballard told The Examiner that final decisions will be made case by case next week and announcements can be expected in “short order.”

To us, that does not exactly sound as if a well-considered plan is about to be unveiled in detail and on schedule. So far, the results of what Newsom promised as “a lot of changes” have been relatively minor. Two apparently huffy resignations took place in September. Gregg Fortner exited as director of the troubled San Francisco Housing Authority, followed by Virginia Harmon as Human Rights Commission executive director.

More recently, rumors swirled about a pending ouster-by-resignation of Susan Leal, general manager of the powerful San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. Reportedly she was at odds with the SFPUC board over her support of moving toward public power. But tasteful civility put such talk on hiatus when Leal was struck by a minivan outside City Hall in mid-December.

Yes, we would like to see the major shake-up of city bureaucracy that Mayor Newsom hinted at prior to re-election. San Francisco has been drifting along and taking easy ways to postpone dealing with fiscal problems for too long. Right now, at the start of his second and last term as mayor, is when Newsom should take boldly practical measures to enhance his obvious ambitions for higher office.

Just one warning: The mayor will not be helping San Francisco correct its policy drift if he simply gets rid of second-rate officials and leaves long-term vacancies at the helm of important city departments and policy boards. The best resignations to accept would be those where a strong replacement already has been identified — most likely among staff subordinates ready for in-house promotion. Where mediocre department heads would need to be replaced via nationwide executive searches, any switch must be decided according to how bad a job the incumbent is actually doing.

Also, as changes are being made, we would be quite pleased if the mayor took some noticeable action toward fulfilling another campaign promise — to clean up City Hall in his second term.

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