The SFMTA Board Debacle, in 5 GIFs

You’ve seen the headlines about the San Francisco Board of Supervisors rejecting the Mayor’s appointees to the SFMTA board, but you probably haven’t followed every twist and turn. We get it — it’s wonky. Most San Franciscans don’t even know what the SFMTA Board does. United Dems is here to help.

We’ll let GIFs do the talking.

May 2020: Supervisors Hillary Ronen and Aaron Peskin remove the lone disability advocate from the SFMTA board.

What Does the SFMTA Board Do? The SFMTA Board of Directors oversees MUNI, and also shapes policy for cars, taxis, cyclists, and pedestrians. The SFMTA board has 7 seats, but delays in appointing new directors has decimated the board: It was knocked down to 4 members this May when supervisors rejected Cristina Rubke, a respected attorney, wheelchair user and transit rider, for reappointment.

Why? Supervisor Hillary Ronen said she just couldn’t get over the fact that the MTA board approved the agency’s two-year budget with fare hikes, when the Board of Supervisors had urged no fare hikes. Supervisor Aaron Peskin agreed that the vote was intended to “send a message.” To paraphrase: Who needs balanced budgets and transportation service during a pandemic? Pay attention to me and do what I want you to do.

Supervisors Ronen, Peskin, Haney, Preston, Walton and Fewer — all self-described “progressives” who claim to care about transit — blocked Rubke’s reappointment.

April — August 2020: Mayor Breed and the people of San Francisco wait for the Board of Supervisors to evaluate additional nominees.

At this point, the SFMTA Board is under serious pressure.

Without Cristina, the Board was down to 4 out of 7 SFMTA members, impairing its ability to vote. Because of the pandemic, the SFMTA Board is grappling with the future of Caltrain, Muni, and alternative modes of transportation to ease car congestion — all at once. So how do we get more qualified leaders on the SFMTA Board? It’s the mayor’s job to nominate candidates, but nominees also have to be approved by the Board of Supervisors.

On April 16, Mayor London Breed nominated Jane Natoli to be appointed to the SFMTA Board.

The Board made Natoli wait for over 100 days just to have a hearing. While Committee Chair Ronen blamed the delay on a schedule packed with ballot initiatives, many speculated that the delay was political. The SFMTA Board could barely make a quorum at a time when the agency was facing countless difficult decisions as a result of COVID-19.

August 2020: Six members of the SF Board of Supervisors reject a qualified, respected transit advocate — again. That’s just petty.

On August 10, Jane Natoli finally received a hearing by the SF Board of Supervisors Rules Committee. Public comment was packed with neighbors and fellow advocates detailing Natoli’s qualifications for the role: She is a former board member of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, current board member at SF LGBT Center and YIMBY Action, and a Mayoral appointee on the Citizen’s General Obligation Bond Oversight Committee. She would also be the first transgender woman to serve on the SFMTA board.

On August 18, the Board of Supervisors voted 6–4 to reject Natoli’s nomination. Supervisors cited comments by community organizations opposed to her appointment. The Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club, Latino Young Democrats and the Democratic Socialists of America — the opposing Supervisors’ political allies — wrote in to complain about Jane’s support of bus lanes, e-scooters, and e-bikes. One even called such modes, without evidence, “instruments of gentrification.”

While opposing Supervisors claim they were swayed by their arguments, the Mayor’s office wasn’t having it: “The message that the Board of Supervisors continues to send is that it does not matter if you are qualified, in order to serve San Francisco you must be aligned with them politically,” wrote Mayor Breed.

About Face: Supervisor Gordon Mar initially recommended Jane Natoli’s appointment, but changed his mind for the confirmation vote.

Supervisor Mar, who voted to recommend Jane at the Rules Committee, said he just couldn’t ignore the organizations that wrote in opposition of her nomination, asserting that their “needs should be centered at SFMTA.”

Elected officials are certainly allowed to change their minds, especially when presented with new or compelling evidence. And yet the letters that attacked Jane’s candidacy did not make a case that her qualifications or experience made her unfit for the role. Instead, they made vague, fact-free generalizations, such as that she lacks “merit on the issues that matter.”

Pet·ti·fog·ging — adjective. Placing undue emphasis on petty details. As in, Pettifogging supervisors put politics over constituent needs during a pandemic.

Imagine if the school board only had 5 people instead of the full 7 to make decisions about reopening schools.

Imagine if the Supreme Court had only 7 of the 9 to make decisions about disputes over the coronavirus pandemic.

While the Board of Supervisors voted to reject Cristina Rubke and Jane Natoli, they subsequently approved Sharon Lai to the SFMTA board. That means SFMTA now has 5 of 7 board members to make decisions that affect transportation policy across the city and region — decisions about which bus lines reopen and when, how to implement the Slow Streets program, and how to keep transit viable in a health and climate crisis.

700,000 people depend on Muni daily under typical circumstances, and thousands more rely on bike lanes and safe streets every day. Transit is essential.

In the words of Brian Wiedenmeier, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition, “SFMTA needs a functioning board in order for our transportation system to have any hope of recovering.”

We agree.

Take Action with United Dems to Elect Pro-Transit Candidates to the Board of Supervisors.

Now is not the time for pettifogging. Find this series of events divisive and frustrating? Help our Club elect pro-transit, bridge-building candidates to the Board of Supervisors. Vote for our endorsed Supervisor candidates and sign up to volunteer for them in the coming weeks. We all need to #dothework to ensure we have a functioning and productive Board of Supervisors.

We are an inclusive and progressive group of Democrats who believe that everyone should have a place in San Francisco.