Should city employees be commissioners?

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SF Examiner file photo of Mayor Ed Lee

Mayor Ed Lee had to do something radical with the Housing Authority, and I'm glad he did. The commissioners who oversee this mess, particularly the chair, Rev. Amos Brown, were nothing but syncophants for Director Henry Alvarez, who clearly has to go. Firing all but one of the commissioners was the right way to go.

(Although technically, the mayor must have gotten them all to resign. The City Charter says a Housing Authority Commission member can only be removed "for inefficiency, neglect of duty, or misconduct in office, after serving written charges and providing an opportunity for a hearing.")

That said, his replacement commissioners raise an interesting question. Every one of them is a city employee. Four of the five are either department heads or senior staffers, all of whom work for the mayor or one of his appointees. The other is a deputy district attorney.

Commissions are set up to provide a degree of indepedent oversight over city agencies; there's a reason the mayor doesn't directly hire and fire the police chief, the fire chief, the planning director, etc.; there are commissions to give members of the public some role in monitoring those departments. Obviously, the mayor appoints most of the commissioners, and most mayors expect a degree of loyalty, but there's a least  a chance that appointees will speak up when the mayor is doing the wrong thing. (Planning Commissioner Dennis Antennore used to defy Mayor Willie Brown routinely; he ultimately got fired for it, but at least the public got a chance to hear another point of view.)

Now we have people whose day job -- and income -- depends directly on the mayor's will (these are not civil servants; they're all high-level workers who can be fired any time) running a commission. The idea that any of them will ever cross the mayor is now out of the question.

Oh -- and do you think there might ever be a time when the District Attorney's Office has to investigate the Housing Authority for criminal conduct? Maybe? Could that ever happen? And how would Deputy D.A. and Commissioner Eric Fleming handle that?

It's perfectly legal for city employees to be commissioners, according to a detailed 2010 memo from the City Attorney's Office. Former Sup. Aaron Peskin tried before he left the board to change that, but he fell short (in part because labor didn't like the idea; why should city workers be deprived of the ability to participate in the public process?) But we're not talking about rank-and-file workers who have union protections and can speak their minds and engage in political action freely; we're talking about direct appointees of the mayor and the city administrator who have no choice but to do the bidding of their bosses.

This just doesn't seem like a good idea.