Oct 12, 2022 - News

Supervisors hold emergency hearing over undated resignation letters

Illustration of San Francisco City Hall with lines radiating from it.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The Board of Supervisors' oversight committee held an emergency hearing Tuesday to discuss Mayor London Breed's practice of requesting that city commissioners sign undated resignation letters as a condition of their appointment.

Catch up quick: A bombshell report from the SF Standard's Michael Barba brought the practice to light last month.

The mayor's office responded by saying such letters had "never been invoked” and were "reserved for the most dire situations of inappropriate behavior or dereliction of duties."

  • Still, the city attorney's office said in a memo that "such requests are inconsistent with the purposes underlying the [city] Charter's removal provisions and could threaten the independence of appointed officials from undue influence."

What happened: During Tuesday's hearing, the mayor's chief of staff Sean Elsbernd said the original idea behind requesting the undated resignation letters came "at the beginning of [Breed's] tenure," and after a "robust discussion" with staff members.

  • Elsbernd reiterated several times the mayor's intent was to swiftly address "ethical situations" among appointees, should they arise.
  • When asked whether the mayor would ever invoke the letters if a policy disagreement emerged, Elsbernd said, "That was never, ever the intention."

Police commissioner Max Carter-Oberstone, who asked for his preemptive resignation letter to be rescinded in August saying he had "always harbored serious misgivings," described the practice Tuesday as an "end-run" around the city's established procedures for removing a commissioner.

  • "It was designed … to shield the mayor from having to take public accountability" and to "dampen [the commissioners'] independence," Carter-Oberstone said.
  • Carter-Oberstone said he was previously told by Breed's office that all city commissioners had signed such letters, even though recent public requests show that the mayor only requested them from some 50 of her nearly 300 appointees.
  • Elsbernd couldn't provide insight into why Breed only asked for some appointees to sign, but said "the mayor clearly had a subjective standard."

What they're saying: "The obvious answer here is that these resignation letters were designed to exert control over commissioners," D5 Supervisor Dean Preston, who initiated Tuesday's emergency hearing, said. "If they were designed for all the other scenarios we've heard about … the AWOL commissioner, the person who gets convicted of a felony, [then the letters] would have been required of every commissioner."

  • Last week, Breed defended the practice in an interview with KQED, saying she wanted a "level of control" over boards and commissions because she's ultimately held accountable for their decisions.
  • "The buck stops with me," she said.

The intrigue: D1 Supervisor Connie Chan said Tuesday the mayor's "approach to governing" was especially concerning given she's recently made appointments for high-profile positions like the district attorney, District 6 supervisor, school board and more.

  • "Their job should be thinking about serving our city and working in the best interest of our city, not based on loyalty," Chan said.
  • Still, Elsbernd confirmed that no preemptive resignation letters were requested from the mayor's appointees to elected positions.

What's next: Breed's office confirmed the mayor will stop the controversial practice and has rescinded all undated resignation letters.

  • Meanwhile, Preston told Axios that he's continuing to gather information on the matter to understand whether "it was used to influence commissioners and their votes."
  • Preston is also working on legislation that would explicitly prevent this mayor, and future mayors, from engaging in such a practice.

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