Mayor Lee Asks the City to Cut its Budget and Gets Accused of Corruption

Mayor Ed Lee asked the city to cut its budget, and the Ethics Commission just plain said no.

In fact, it was closer to “hell no.”

San Francisco is looking at a projected $100 million shortfall next fiscal year, and another $240 million hole the year after, so the mayor’s office directed all city departments to trim their budgets 1.5 percent. This is a far cry from 2014, when Lee’s administration adopted a “let the good times roll” policy and told everyone not to worry about cuts.

A representative from the mayor’s office came to this morning’s special meeting of the Ethics Commission to helpfully explain that department’s obligation to cut back. (Actually, he ended up explaining the budget process from start to finish, because Chairman Paul Renne kept prompting him to continue, and when Renne asks you for something in his soothing, James Garner-like voice, it’s basically impossible to say no.)

Once they’d reviewed the entire procedure, Commissioner Benedict Hur posed a deceptively simple question: “What if we don’t do it?”

[jump] Yep, the mayor asked for cuts — ordered them, really, to the degree that he’s allowed — and the first response he got was, “What if I don’t feel like it? What are you going to do ?”

At first it sounded like the mayor’s man was honestly stumped by this query, but after a couple seconds of cringing contemplation, he replied that the city had a legal obligation to pass a balanced budget. Which you’ll notice doesn’t actually answer the question.

One by one, the assembled commissioners agreed, in so many words, that they weren’t terribly interested in cutting their budgets, and that it was annoying that they be asked to in the first place.

Of course, every city department is intransigent in the face of cutbacks. But the Ethics Commission has something of an ace in the hole: They’re the Ethics Commission. In PR terms, under-funding the one city department whose job it is to keep the other departments behaving goes over like a wet firecracker.

“At a time like this, doesn’t the city need a more robust watchdog, not less?” Hur asked. “Investigations have to be done. The revenue has to be there. For us to compliantly cut out 1.5 percent when, if anything, we should be adding? Unacceptable.”

This segued into a potentially awkward line of questioning: Just where did all that money go?

Several members of the community gadfly group Friends of Ethics (who, despite their name, rarely sound like they’re in a friendly mood) took turns at the microphone pointing out that the city has bent over backwards to attract new business and construction. Revenues dutifully went up, but somehow we came out of the two-year budget cycle on the hook for nine figures?

Warming to the subject, Commissioner Peter Keane offered some colorful theories.

“The city has slid into corruption,” he said. “It’s pay to play. It’s a game of bribery, whether we can ever prove it or not.”

Keane noted that, by rights, the city should have plenty of dough and accused the mayor of sabotaging the commission and turning it into a “castrated body” that can’t do its job — a job that includes policing the mayor’s office.

“Let’s submit a budget with increases,” Keane said. “Let’s fight for it.”

Tough crowd, Mr. Mayor.

Chairman Renne smoothly noted that there was “unanimity” among commissioners and that they’d begin wrangling a budget proposal for their next meeting. Budgets are due February 22, although the commission asked several times whether that could be extended beyond their February 29 meeting.

Yes, they’re even fighting the deadline.

The commission’s feistiness underscores the mayor’s sudden vulnerability after many years of riding high. No sooner was he reelected (in a race where a gang of unknowns netted a surprisingly large chunk of the vote) than his approval rating plunged, and simmering discontent about the state of the city seemed to boil over.

It’s painful timing for the mayor to have to come to the rest of city government with hat in hand . It also invites suspicion from the more cynical (or savvy?) observers, such as Keane.

For the record, the official version of the budget hole is less sinister: Some investments didn’t pan out, pension costs are running over, and certain accounting gimmicks can’t be repeated. That kind of thing. But not everyone will want to hear it.

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