Free Sunday meters challenge rejected, SFMTA board's independence questioned

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors Chairman Tom Nolan, pictured here, is under question of being unduly influenced by the mayor.
Image courtesy of the SFMTA

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to reject an environmental appeal of the decision to repeal paying for parking meters on Sundays, which was voted on by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency in April as part of the agency's annual budget approval.

It was a hotly contested decision, as competing interest groups fought for their slice of Muni's funding. SFMTA Chairman Tom Nolan told us at the time, "As long as I’ve been on the SFMTA board I’ve never felt more pressure."

This week's appeal to the Board of Supervisors focused on one aspect of the overall SFMTA budget: the repeal of paid Sunday meters. 

"I appreciate there is frustration," SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin said to the board. That was an understatement.

The Sunday meters benefit many, the appeal's filers contended: Less cars circled around looking for parking (because more drivers could actually find spots) meant reduced congestion and safer streets for bicyclists and pedestrians. It's a sign of the strength of the argument that the appeal was filed by transit advocacy group Livable City (whose executive director is BART board member Tom Radulovich) and Mario Tanev, a very bright policy wonk over at the San Francisco Transit Riders Union. 

"The SFMTA's own data proves the Sunday meters were good for the city," Cynthia Crews of the League of Pissed Off Voters said to the board. "We need to stop playing chicken with public safety."

But despite the environmental benefits of paid meters, the appeal was rejected. The reasons are buried in political gobbledygook, but untangling the complex story reveals the mayor's power, and his missteps. 

Firstly, the environmental appeal wasn't exactly aimed at the meters themselves, but at the SFMTA budget as a whole. That's because the SFMTA board didn't vote to repeal Sunday meters directly, but stuffed it into their approved budget, which is exempt from California Environmental Quality Act review. It was like serving up a distasteful Sunday meter fruitcake with the Muni budget holiday meal: You'd better eat the whole dinner, or else you're not eating at all. 

Budgets are statutorily exempt from environmental review (otherwise there'd be an EIR with every major financial decision). So the Sunday meters were approved through a politically tactical move, shielded by the environmental exemption cloak of the budget.

This meant the environmental appeal yesterday targeted not just the meters, but it could effectively challenge the entire SFMTA's right to environmental review exception for its budgets, supervisors said. They also warned such a challenge may set a precedent for other budgets from other agencies to not be exempt from environmental review, an onerous burden. That was too big of a pill for the board to swallow, which is likely why only two supervisors voted against granting the SFMTA the CEQA exemption: John Avalos and Eric Mar. 

Yet most of the political maneuvering wasn't from the board, but from Mayor Ed Lee, a problem Supervisor David Campos used this review hearing to highlight. "Even if you do or don't want to see Sunday meter parking, irrespective of the issue," Campos said, "I think the way this matter was handled by the SFMTA, respectfully, is not something anyone should be happy with."

He continued: "Let’s be clear: The reason why the SFMTA budget included an item that did not provide for funding from Sunday meters is because the mayor wanted it that way. We have a budget system that is essentially run by decisions made in the Mayor’s Office."

We posed this idea in our story "Politics over Policy" [4/22], contending that because the SFMTA is appointed by the mayor (meaning, he picks and chooses who is on the board), the board members are therefore politically beholden to the mayor. 

Campos drove this point home at the meeting: "I think there’s something to be said when the appointment of one official (on the SFMTA board) is entirely dependent on [the mayor], who can disagree or agree with the decisions you made."

The night before our last story went to print, SFMTA Board Chariman Tom Nolan told us that was in fact exactly what happened on the Sunday meter issue. The SFMTA board, whose directors vote on resolutions every week, received a phone call from the mayor asking for a specific vote. And he got it.

"Ed Resikin, myself, and a few others in a conference call [with the Mayor's Office]," Nolan said. He told us the central message of the call was this: The mayor wanted to put a vehicle license fee increase on the city's November ballot. In order to do that, the mayor contended, car drivers needed to feel like they weren't being nickled and dimed. Paid Sunday meters had to go. 

"That was where they advanced the idea that the mayor wanted to do that," Nolan told us. "That call was right before the mayor’s State of the City message."

Nolan is an affable, straightforward person. The budget the SFMTA passed came on the heels of a fiery meeting, filled to the gills with activists from the senior and persons with disabilties communities. They asked for free Muni for those same groups, which would cost less money than the Sunday meters would bring in -- many at the meeting said the meters could pay for the free Muni service. The need is dire, as some seniors said they regularly made the choice between groceries and a Muni pass.

Nolan sounded deeply effected by their stories.

"Muni is for everybody, especially those who need it most," he said. "The testimony was very heartbreaking. It's expensive to live in this city." 

But in the end, he told us, the mayor felt it was best to kibosh the Sunday meters, which deprived the SFMTA of funding to make Muni free for qualified seniors. We asked Nolan if the mayor had outsized influence on the SFMTA board.

"I think people are aware that we are quasi-independent," he said. "We are clearly part of the city family. I can assure you that this happens very seldom that we get this pressure from the Mayor’s Office. He’s a very open-minded guy, really, and he has a high tolerance for ambiguity, which I like."

"But," you don't turn him down, he said, because, "he’s the mayor."

SFMTA Board Director Cheryl Brinkman supported paid Sunday meters. But when justifying her vote to repeal them, she told the packed board meeting the "best political minds" in the Mayor's Office said it was the right thing to do in order to pass the VLF increase ballot measure.

But in a move that outraged Sup. Scott Wiener and many others, just this month Lee dropped the VLF ballot measure altogether for this year, eventually agreeing to support its placement on the November 2016 ballot.

So to pave the way for success at the ballot box the board rejected free Muni for seniors and lost over $10 million in Muni funding. And in the end, the mayor threw all the justification for his compromises out the window.

Best political minds, indeed. 


So Prop E of 1999 was a lie, thanks.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 11:14 am

Evidently many of us understood it better than you did.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 11:30 am

his implied promise to just be a caretaker for the mayor's office until there could be an election; and that he would not attempt to run as an incumbent. This latest bait-and-switch is just icing on the cake.

Honestly it seems as though Ed Lee is out-Browning Willie himself--what was that pithy comment Brown made about getting what he wanted any day of the week?

But while I don't approve of Lee's tactics or the horribly lopsided distribution of power which resides in the mayor's office, I do nonetheless find myself highly dubious of the rationales for charging for Sunday meters.

While some will argue that taxing car drivers is not regressive since poor people down own cars, the fact is that many people own and drive motor vehicles for the good reason that the transit system is not adequate for their needs; such as working graveshift or as tradesmen, etc.

It is true that parking meters affect visitors to the city in addition to residents, while a VLF only affects residents--but at least a VLF has a built-in progressive nature, while parking meters and the tickets are much more purely regressive.

Anyhow, most neighborhoods are rather sleepy on Sundays and having GPS-guided Cushmans zipping around to nail lonely cars on semi-deserted streets doesn't seem cool.

And I think it is a bit rich having the disabled community demanding free Muni when anyone with a placard is already exempt from *all* parking costs. I think if these placards were only in the hands of people who really needed them there would be plenty of money for free stuff.

Same thing for oldsters. I hate the idea of anyone going hungry to afford one of the already discounted Muni passes, but most oldsters probably don't have anything like that problem, and simply giving away free admissions to everyone over a certain age isn't fair to younger people who may be struggling.

Just my 2 cents.

Posted by lillipublicans on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 12:00 pm

He merely said that, at the time he was asked, he had no intention to run. He then later changed his mind when many folks encouraged him to run. That's not lying and it's not breaking a promise.

I agree with some of what you say, but I think that VLF is regressive because it is a fee that is independant of use, whereas parking fees are generally proportional to use.

The rich can hire a driver to wait somewhere where he doesn't have to pay to park.

I don't mind the voters deciding on VLF but i also don't see it winning. Most voters either drive a car or benefit from the use of one.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 12:16 pm

Lee promised to not run for mayor, to only serve as a caretaker, when he was appointed. Lee would not have been appointed without that caveat.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 12:35 pm

provide a credible citation that says otherwise.

Lee changed his mind. He never lied or broke a promise.

There was no credible alternative.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 12:45 pm

Lying liars and the damn lies they tell.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 1:23 pm
Posted by Guest on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 3:14 pm

SF Chronicle on 8/7/11 - "Ed Lee will announce today that he is running for a full four-year term as San Francisco mayor, vaulting himself to the top of a crowded field of candidates while breaking a promise not to run that sealed his appointment as interim mayor seven months ago."

Posted by Guest on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 4:49 pm we knew Ed Lee lied back in Aug of 2011?

Why on earth wasn't this made known to the voters?

So that they could have considered it when casting their vote.

The fact that this critical information was withheld from the electorate casts a shadow on the entire election imho. They should have been informed.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 5:15 pm

Yes, Ed Lee changed his mind, because of massive support for him running. BFD.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 5:23 pm

"Proposition E creates a new Transportation Agency to run the Municipal Railway free from political interference."

The mayor is interfering with the operations of the Muni on a day-to-day basis.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 12:06 pm

LESS political?

If we really want an independant Muni then we should privatize it.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 12:17 pm

More independent eyes on the problem means that political plays by any one group face more difficult challenge to succeed.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 12:34 pm

Italy's coalition system of government is much closer to what you are advocating and who would want that?

Posted by Guest on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 12:44 pm

So you admit that just as Ed Lee lied about his intentions in order to get appointed mayor, the proponents of Prop E likewise lied to get total mayoral control over that billion dollar budget?

Posted by marcos on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 1:13 pm

to the rule.

Almost always such comments are made by trolls intent on falsifying the views of others, but in this case marcos has used the construction with absolute fidelity. This has exposed and illuminated the true thinking of the commenter.

Posted by lillipublicans on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 2:12 pm

marcos was seeking to deliberately misinterpret the words.

Ed Lee has never lied that I am aware of. He remains a popular mayor who won a landslide election victory

Posted by Guest on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 3:16 pm

falsification would doubtless inspire more of the same.

Posted by lillipublicans on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 7:37 pm
Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 8:29 am

PRICELESS! Libertarian conservatives who troll progressive websites calling a progressive poster a troll.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 8:53 am

Lilli is the real deal, however. He has admitted trolling SFGate, and was banned from there. He even got banned from SFBG (hard to achieve) for his dumb barrier shtick.

The word "troll" is usually used to try and disparage an opponent who is winning a debate, I have learned.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 9:11 am

by misanthrops in this country and does not mean what it means in the rest of the world.

Posted by Am I banned from SFBG yet? Seems not! on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 12:38 pm

And your barrier BS was banned

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 12:48 pm

"Liberty" means me taking everything I want from everyone else until I am told otherwise by court or force in which case I whine.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 1:05 pm

bureaucrat in a cheap suit telling you what to do

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 1:16 pm

Yes, but we are not in the rest of the world. Libertarian, liberal and conservative are used in the US context while moderate has its own San Francisco connotation to mean US conservative.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 1:04 pm

everyone else will look like a conservative.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 1:15 pm

I'm advocating for some form of the New England town hall model. Problem?

Posted by marcos on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 8:03 pm
Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 5:08 am

You hate participatory democracy which means that you hate American citizens and deny their sovereignty over the state.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 6:58 am

I have no need for meetings that are hijacked by the "usual suspect" extremists who have nothing better to do

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 8:26 am

New England town meeting style democracy is not hijacked by the usual suspects. San Francisco's neoliberal corporate politics, on the other hand, is hijacked by the usual suspects looking to profit off of government.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 6:33 pm

As Supervisor Wiener stated numerous times yesterday, the CEQA appeal does not apply because rate and fee adjustments, up or down, are exempt from CEQA review. So, wait for SFMTA to raise the fines and fees next, unless they get wind of the revolt that is sweeping LA, and forcing mayors all over the state to consider the implications of a drivers' revolt.

“The Los Angeles Parking Freedom Initiative wants to cap fines at $23 for violations that don’t affect public safety." Watch the video:

Posted by Guest on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 3:53 pm

You fantasize that San Francisco will someday be as car-friendly as LA. Why not just move there instead?

Posted by GlenParkDaddy on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 10:43 pm
Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 5:09 am
Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 5:12 pm

Who would bother to pay the meter?

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 9:34 am

reasonable. $23 is about 100 times a quarter.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 9:45 am

The purpose of parking fines in SF is to transfer wealth.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 5:15 pm
Posted by anticrusader on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 4:57 pm

"With 15 or so candidates, nobody was ever going to get a
majority in the first round.

But Lee always was 50% ahead of his nearest rival and win the "runoff" 60-40.


12 RCV ballots do make for even a plurality. I think you need to check the election results for the 2011 Mayoral race.

It is awfully oxymoronic to utilize what constitutes a (winner take all) vernacular, i.e. "a landslide" victory. I do not think you understand how RCV ballots are marked (sic), and more importantly how the votes are counted, assigned in such a system as the election results are tallied.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 23, 2014 @ 7:55 pm

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