Sunday, May 9, 2021
News + Politics Herrera moves to PUC, giving Breed a chance to appoint a new...

Herrera moves to PUC, giving Breed a chance to appoint a new city attorney

Dramatic move could shake up local politics and impact public policy for years to come.

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When I called Dennis Herrera this afternoon I had only one real question:

You’ve spent 20 years building an office that you have vowed would operate with the highest level of public integrity – and now you are going to let London Breed replace you with a political hack who can undo everything you have done?

Herrera wasn’t going there.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera will now become the head of the SFPUC

He told me he was ready to move on, that he almost didn’t run for re-election last time around, and that he was excited about taking over as the head of the Public Utilities Commission. He’s been fighting PG&E, working on public-power issues, and has the standing to root out any remaining corruption in a very troubled city agency.

But the fact remains: Herrera is giving the mayor the opportunity to shape one of the most powerful offices in the city – possibly for decades. And anyone who thinks she isn’t going to use that opportunity to appoint a political crony doesn’t understand local politics.

Maybe she’ll surprise us. She’s had a bad record appointing political allies to jobs, and an excellent record when she appointed a public defender who was already on staff, well qualified, and well respected.

Several of Herrera’s senior deputies could take over and do a fine job.

But here’s the short list I am hearing:

Assemblymember David Chiu.

Supervisor Catherine Stefani.

Either would be an entirely political appointment.

Putting a supervisor in the office would give Breed another appointment – to the board.

The fundamental problem here, of course, is that the City Charter gives the mayor way too much power to appoint people to what should be elected offices. If there’s another jurisdiction in the United States where the chief executive gets to appoint members of the legislature, I have never heard of it.

But in the meantime:

The upside is that Herrera actually cares about things like public power and PG&E, which nobody running the PUC ever has before. I asked him tonight about municipal broadband, and he was intrigued. And he’s not going to tolerate old-style corruption (which may mean getting rid of a fair number of people in that agency).

On the other hand, despite his excitement about the new job, he’s not going to be an elected official anymore; he can’t do anything big without the approval of a five-member commission appointed by the mayor.

The PUC used to be the home of a lot of useless friends of mayors who knew little about the issues and would never take on any powerful corporation. These days, there are some entirely qualified and independent commissioners. But still: You can’t issue revenue bonds to take over PG&E or to build a municipal broadband system without three of the five votes. And they all owe their jobs to the mayor.

The downside, of course, is that the City Attorney’s Office is incredibly powerful and important, and it matters who gets that job. A city attorney loyal to the mayor could undermine any progressive legislation or programs that the supes want to push. That person could protect city officials who wanted to keep public records secret, and ignore violations of ethics issues, and refuse to aggressively pursue things like the Recology scandal.

Herrera told me that he had not discussed anything about his successor with the mayor.

“I have spent 20 years trying to build an office with the highest standards of public integrity,” he said. “If the mayor asks me what qualities would make a successful city attorney, I will tell her.”

Sup. Aaron Peskin told me that would be a big problem:

“If Dennis Herrera didn’t line someone up who would continue his legacy, and the mayor didn’t agree with it, I would be bereaved,” he said.

No matter what happens, it will probably impact local politics.

Under the City Charter, anyone appointed by the mayor has to face the voters at the next scheduled election. Since it appears the Newsom recall has qualified, that could be as soon as November (although six supes and the mayor would have to agree to call a municipal election on the same day). If not, the new city attorney will be on the ballot in the 2022 primary.

If, indeed, Breed appoints someone like Stefani, it’s almost certain that a progressive candidate will run.

If she appoints Chiu, then we will have a special election for the state Assembly seat. (Unlike San Francisco, the state of California lets the voters, not the chief executive, fill legislative positions.)

In the meantime, maybe this will spur another effort at City Charter reform – starting with limits to the authority of the mayor to fill vacant elected offices.

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Still no word from Herrera about when he’s going back to in-person working. He didn’t give a shit about students, teachers and other school staff when he joined the bellyaching Breed and crying Ronen in grandstanding about SFUSD.

  2. Astonishing! According to the SF Examiner, this arrogant tax-leech making $342,000 a year wants a raise if he gets the position while city income is down, businesses are closing and most residents’ income is down, Herrera wants to pad his excessive retirement. If the mayor and commission have any ethics, they will say no to the raise. If anything, his excessive pay should be lowered.

  3. Lemme get this straight, Herrera sat on claims of municipal corruption, doing nothing until the US Attorney’s office began indicting and securing pleas. After that, Herrera began to investigate some of the details of some of which the feds had uncovered. Now, after serving as dutiful consigliere to the City famiglia for so long, advising and counseling the fallen department heads, Herrera is being brought in to ensure to the maximum extent possible that the bodies remian buried.

    Why not just appoint the other alleged adult in the room on who’s watch corruption rampaged, Ben Rosenfield, to City Attorney? The appointment of the consigliere of corruption to PUC is Breed doubling down on behalf of the machine against the US Attorney.

    As if the machine fears “progressives” running against her candidate. All Breed needs to do is to threaten funding of CCHO or HSN and the “threat” all goes away.

  4. I imagine people don’t trust the mayor so much any more at this point, so if she picks someone like Chiu or Stefani and they run against a progressive, it will not be a shoo-in for the incumbent. Breed herself had a closer election than any mayor in many years.

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