Supervisor Hillary Ronen, flanked by unionized mental health workers and residents of San Francisco's Behavioral Health Center, declared victory in this battle — and looked ahead to a larger, looming fight. Photo by Joe Eskenazi

Political brawl between mayor’s ‘UrgentCareSF’ ballot measure and Supervisors Hillary Ronen and Matt Haney’s ‘Mental Health SF’ ballot measure looms 

First and foremost, let’s start with the people. Today was important for the people. 

When Chon first arrived at the Adult Residential Facility on the San Francisco General Hospital campus, he would tell staff, every year, his family would take him home for the holidays. 

He’d wait outside, but they never came. And he’s still here. 

Assuming you’ve heard at all of the Adult Residential Facility, a 55-bed center for the severely mentally ill, you likely became informed of its existence in August, when the mayor and Department of Public Health proposed its essential dissolution via a plan to turn 41 permanent residential beds into temporary shelter. 

This is a place, it turns out, where a great deal had been flying under the radar. This decree to do away with long-term, residential beds in the midst of a municipal calamity of homelessness  and mental illness, however, was noticed. 

So, that won’t be happening. That’s what today was about. That’s why Chon went to his garden. 

Following a fierce backlash led by the facility’s unionized workers and semi-competing ordinances written, respectively, by Supervisor Rafael Mandelman and Supervisors Hillary Ronen and Matt Haney, the Adult Residential facility won’t be contracted. More staff will be brought in, more training will be offered, more oversight will take place and — workers insist — an audit of the facility by an independent third party, possibly the city controller, will be mandated.

So, today was a celebration. Chon picked a bouquet of the flowers he’d planted himself, several of his fellow Adult Residential Facility residents arranged them, and he presented them to Ronen at an ebullient noon press conference. “Thank you,” residents told Ronen while reporters attempted to ask questions about the forthcoming political battle between her and the mayor regarding competing mental health reform measures. “Thank you for saving my home.” 

“I used to live only for the manic highs,” resident Donna Mateer told the crowd. “Now I live for life. Now I live for now. Thank you for fighting for us.” 

As the Behavioral Health Center slips off the news radar, it’s good to remember the plight of actual people and their actual stories and actual lives. 

We’ll be hearing less about them in the coming days, and more about the gathering storm of political warfare between Haney, Ronen, and the mayor’s office about what to do regarding this city’s untenable public health status quo. 

Chon, who grew these flowers himself, presented a bouquet to Supervisor Hillary Ronen as a token of his appreciation for her fight to preserve his home. Photo by Sharifa Rahman

Mediated negotiations between these parties regarding Haney and Ronen’s proposed reboot of the Department of Public Health have veered into the ditch; the mayor, via the Chronicle, notified the public — and the supervisors and this city’s unionized mental health workers — that she would be submitting her own mental health ballot measure. 

It turns out the mayor’s battle station was fully armed and operational after all. It even has its own website. 

Haney and Ronen this afternoon turned in their proposal to the Department of Elections — on this, the deadline day for March 2020 submissions. The mayor’s office has until 5 p.m. to do so and, with considerably less fanfare, it will follow suit. 

Both Ronen and Rudy Gonzalez, the executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council, told me they’re learning details of the mayor’s plan via the press — and, reading between the lines, this is not a setup they consider either respectful or productive. 

But, as the kids say, it is what it is. 

The existence of this mayoral counter-plan to Haney and Ronen’s gambit was hardly unknown, and the public revelation of “UrgentCareSF,” via the Chronicle, is a say-hello-to-my-little-friend moment in these negotiations. Everyone will lock and load by registering their ballot measure today, and the public and private brawling will potentially crescendo on Nov. 26 — the deadline to withdraw a proposal for the March 2020 ballot. Thanksgiving promises to be interesting. 

And, yes, the specter of dueling mental health reforms is yet another indication of San Francisco putting a premium on politics over governance. Frustrated City Hall sources told me this is “a classic example of City Hall not being able to get shit done” and, in part, the byproduct of “a tremendous level of distrust between Supervisor Ronen and the mayor.” 

Are the differences negotiable? That all depends upon whom you ask. For the mayor, the worst of all worlds would be two ballot measures competing in March 2020. The next-worst of all worlds would be one ballot measure. And the best of all worlds would be legislation, sparing the voters, and giving the city more flexibility. 

It is not clear if the mayor will sign off on a solution involving the voters or if Supervisors Ronen and Haney will sign off on a solution not involving the voters — though Ronen assured me that if the mayor’s proposals are good and solid, she’s all ears: “Matt and I are always willing to go back to the table.” 

It remains to be seen what there is to talk about there. It is not possible at this time to parse the differences between these competing measures — and a snap analysis of legislation that would involve hundreds of millions of dollars and scores of jobs and ambitious attempts to alleviate the very public suffering of so many San Franciscans would be ill advised. 

Especially when it’s clear that this is a political chess game — and many of these pieces were only put in place to be moved when needed. And especially when entrenched enmity may play as significant a role as whatever words are written on the page. 

But that’s for tomorrow. Today, in the sun, Ronen called for a celebration and the grateful Adult Residential Facility residents were happy to oblige. 

Chon handed Ronen the bouquet of his flowers and posed for a photo with the supervisor. 

He doesn’t wait outside during the holidays for his family to take him home anymore, staff tells us. 

Because he is home. 

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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1 Comment

  1. Can’t we all just get along?
    I agree with Joe that a snap analysis now is ill advised. But, based only on my attendance at the hearing for expanded conservatorship, I expect my views will be closer to the Mayor and Mandelman than Ronen. Though it’s not clear the Mayor and BOS really care about a analysis. They’re about political dominance.

    Fundamentally everyone seems to agree mental health policy shouldn’t be a voter initiative. It’s this kind of inability to compromise that cause people to distrust “progressive” as being the political home of people most concerned with personalities, symbolism, egotism, and political patronage.

    votes. Sign in to vote
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