London Breed welcomes visitors to San Francisco. Photo by Mimi Chakarova, Feb. 2022

Update, Oct. 4: The mayor’s office has provided 10 more preemptive resignation letters.

The City Attorney today published an opinion that Mayor London Breed’s practice of requiring commissioners to submit a letter of resignation as a condition of appointment is “inconsistent” with the City Charter — but not prohibited by it. 

The letter comes on the heels of reporting by Michael Barba of the San Francisco Standard, in which Police Commissioner Max Carter-Oberstone revealed that he had been made to submit such a letter — and he subsequently moved to rescind it. That revelation came after Breed called Carter-Oberstone “a liar” when he declined to vote for her preferred candidate for Police Commission president, a charge he vociferously protested

In response to a public records request, Mission Local received more than three dozen preemptive resignation letters penned by mayorally appointed commissioners.

Undated resignation letters

Emails rescinding letters

We have additionally contacted numerous commissioners, some of whom were appointed toward the beginning of Breed’s term, who confirmed they were made to sign preemptive resignation letters. The pattern behind the letters is difficult to discern; on some of the very same commissions, certain members confirmed they signed such a letter while others said they were not asked to. On other occasions, commissioners simply declined to sign the letter, and said there were no repercussions. 

“I was never asked to do that,” said Port Commissioner John Burton. “And if somebody asked me, I wouldn’t do it. But that’s me; I’m kind of an asshole.” 

The public records request received today by Mission Local, however, reveals that some of Burton’s colleagues on the Port Commission did submit such letters.

It is not clear if the letters were insisted upon based on concerns about the individual appointee, or if it was applied inconsistently due to disorganization in the mayor’s office — or both.

Commissioners today received a letter from the mayor’s office stating that “According to a directive from Mayor Breed, the previously submitted letter of resignation has been rescinded. Thank you for your continued service to the City and County of San Francisco.”

Carter-Oberstone told Mission Local that he was made to sign an undated letter of resignation when reappointed to the Police Commission, but not when initially appointed. This rendered the claim that this was a pro-forma move difficult to accept.  

“I was very concerned,” he said. “As I wrote in my letter rescinding my letter of resignation, I had real misgivings about the legality of the process. At the time, it felt like I was being singled out.” 

The City Attorney’s four-page opinion found that preemptive letters of resignation were likely legally unenforceable, especially for commissioners who cannot be unilaterally removed from a body by their appointing authority. And, while the City Attorney’s Office found the practice of demanding an appointee sign such a letter was not illegal on its face, it suggested the practice is not tenable:  

Although the Charter does not prohibit appointing authorities from requesting pre- appointment letters of resignation, such requests are inconsistent with the purposes underlying the Charter’s removal provisions and could threaten the independence of appointed officials from undue influence by the Mayor, the Board, and other appointing authorities. For these reasons, appointing authorities should not require resignation letters before or as a condition of appointment for commissioners who may only be removed for cause or with the concurrence of a City body other than the appointing authority.

Lawyers contacted by Mission Local said the city could still face legal scrutiny, however. Jim Sutton, an authority on government and election law, said that preemptive resignation letters were problematic for commissioners, including Police Commissioners, who can only be removed from a body with Board of Supervisors’ approval. 

“I think the resignation letter arguably violates the Charter,” he said. “It’s an end-run around the Board.” 

With this in mind, some of the resignation letters sent Mission Local’s way are especially problematic. Both Raquel Bito and Bianca Neumann of the Building Inspection Commission earlier this year submitted such letters. But, prior to June’s Proposition B, there was no means of removing an unwilling sitting commissioner.

Carter-Oberstone expressed similar concerns in his August letter rescinding his preemptive resignation: “It is an unmistakable attempt to circumvent the Board of Supervisors’ role under the Charter … And aside from arrogating to the executive branch a power reserved for the legislature, contracting around this Charter provision also has the effect of diminishing the independence of mayoral appointees, reducing public transparency into the removal process, and diminishing the Mayor’s accountability for any decision to remove a Commissioner.” 

Sutton also felt the city was now in potential legal peril due to potential encroachments of the Disinterested Zeal Doctrine. In essence, this is the expectation that commissioners in positions of adjudicating matters are making their decisions solely based on the official materials presented in writing and during live proceedings.

The presence of a trove of preemptive resignation letters hanging over commissioners like a sword of Damocles, however, prompts questions about the decision-making process of mayoral appointees. Especially for someone on the wrong end of a 4-3 commission vote, Sutton notes, questions may arise regarding the due process rights of the parties appearing before various city commissions. 

While Breed’s office has claimed she will cease this practice, Supervisor Dean Preston is still moving ahead with a Board of Supervisors hearing and may introduce legislation to formally curtail it.

The concept of mayors leaning on their appointed commissioners is as exotic as pulling a rabbit from a rabbit hutch. But the notion of preemptively requiring mayoral appointees — appointees the mayor cannot unilaterally remove — to sign a resignation note struck political veterans as novel. 

Veterans of Mayor Ed Lee’s administration said that if he had done this, he wouldn’t have had such difficulties in cajoling Mel Murphy to exit the Port Commission. A generation ago, Mayor Gavin Newsom publicly requested all sitting commissioners to resign; most he reappointed, but some he did not.  

Larry Mazzola, Sr., who served on the Airport Commission for nearly 30 years under five mayors, said he declined to submit such a letter to Newsom. And he was reappointed. Several times. 

“I wouldn’t do it. There was no reason for me to resign unless I was doing something wrong. I just kept serving,” he recalled. 

Mazzola said Breed’s practice of requiring preemptive letters “is absolutely wrong. It takes the commissioners’ independence away. You serve day-to-day and you can’t vote your own conscience.” 

His contemporary, John Burton, agrees. 

“I think it’s kinda horseshit.” 

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Follow Us

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.

Join the Conversation

17 Comments

Please keep your comments short and civil. We will zap comments that fail to adhere to these short and very easy-to-follow rules.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. This is clearly an attempt by the Mayor to exercise undue influence over appointed Commissioners and/or create an end round Charter mandated removal requirements. It is misleading, deceptive and dishonest. Any post dated pre-signed resignation letter is a knowing misrepresentation of the facts. For example, post dating an undated pre-signed resignation letter would almost certainly be found fraudulent and actionable if it were required of anyone who would otherwise be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits. Thank you to Supervisor Preston for seeking legislation to permanently prohibit this practice.

  2. Mr. Eskenazi: is there a way to find out if this mayor made her DA appointee Brooke Jenkins sign such a letter? I think Chiu is too savvy to have signed one when he was first appointed but you never know. Jenkins is a little too eager to please the Mayor.

    1. Sir or madam — 

      There are easy ways, starting with asking. But it strikes me as fanciful that anyone appointed to an elected office would be mandated to do this. That is not in the same realm as subjecting appointed commissioners or task force members to such a stipulation.

      JE

      1. I remember reading that at least some Commissioners are entitled to health insurance coverage during their tenure. It seems the termination of that coverage due to a post dated pre-signed resignation letter raises issues similar to those that would arise if a post-dated pre-signed resignation letter were used to deny an official unemployment insurance coverage to which they would otherwise be entitled. It does seem worthwhile to place a public records request to see if any officials appointed to an elected office were ever required to sign one of these letters. Also, any one want to guess which Mayor began this practice of presenting undated pre-signed resignation letters to Commissioners? Betting odds their initials are WB.

  3. Wonder if the Mayor made David Chiu sign an undated resignation letter when she appointed him to the City Attorney post.

  4. There are no Charter Police that ensure that electeds play by the Charter. The City Attorney is supposed gatekeep elected conduct, but that all depends on who is doing what and when to and for whom.

    One would hope that the FBI would see this as a case of Breed defrauding the citizenry of honest government services, the catch-all federal crime for corrupt violations of local law.

    The SFPD has been under Federal investigation that produced a laundry list of reforms that the department is lumbering through. If Breed interfered with the SFPD conforming with DoJ recommendations, then that’s a good case for honest services fraud to my mind.

  5. Ummmmmm. Current City Attorney David Chiu started life in that role as a mayoral appointee. Shouldn’t he recuse himself? Here is EXACTLY the legal problem, conflict and trouble with mayoral appointments to publicly elected positions. Mayoral appointees generally do the bidding of them that brung ‘em to the dance.

  6. PUC Commissioner and previous General Manager Anson Moran was not reappointed this year. Joe, can you find out why?

  7. Joe,

    Ask Peskin.

    When the Class of 2000 came in one of the things they did was to lobby against Willie Brown’s practice of making all department heads, ‘Acting’.

    Note that Mayor Breed began as a Willie Brown protégé on a Bond Oversight Committee then then moved to the Redevelopment Commission and I think she approved every cost overrun that passed thru those bodies.

    She’s tested and trusted by the Old Guard and won’t even pave the Mission half of Clarion Alley and add Pit Stops on each end, on adjacent to the front door of Mission Precinct with a cadet attendant 24/7/365

    I’m working on that one.

    Ask London’s department heads if they had to sign.

    Go Niners !

    h.

  8. Unbelievable! When will my fellow citizens wake up and realize that in addition to the many crisis’s facing our city that we also have a CRISIS OF CORRUPTION? While I was a Planning Commissioners my fellow mayoral appointees were told how they had to vote which resulted in many 4-3 votes with the mayoral appointees in the majority and the Board appointees in the minority. The idea that Commissions are independent and that the decisions are a result of the materials provided to the commissioners who make independent decisions is an absolute joke. The mayors office had the gall to text mayoral appointed commissioners literally in the middle of the hearings! Corruption runs rampant throughout city government via the “city family” and we the citizens bear the brunt of it in many ways that Joe E has shown us. WAKE UP folks! London Breed and her ilk needs to go!

    1. Agree that Mayor Breed needs to get the boot.

      Our city has become too corrupt to function properly. I hope the FBI is still investigating all this, as left to fester, the rot will just continue.