A mayor-appointed police commissioner alleged Tuesday that an undated resignation letter he was directed to sign gave San Francisco Mayor London Breed “carte blanche” to unilaterally remove him from his position and was an “end-run” around the city’s charter.

Max Carter-Oberstone alleged he was required to sign an undated letter of resignation upon his reappointment, seemingly a requirement. He later went on to rescind his letter in August.

Supervisor Dean Preston has been outspoken about the mayor’s resignation letter requirement, referring to it as a “scandal.” He called an emergency hearing on Tuesday at City Hall to discuss the mayor’s policy, a practice that Preston said has been a “secret for years” and “fundamentally inconsistent with city law.”

San Francisco Mayor London Breed. (Photo courtesy Drew Altizer)

At the meeting, Carter-Oberstone said he felt the policy was designed to “override” the official commissioner removal process, “shield” Breed from taking public accountability and “dampen” commissioner independence.

“I knew that this decision would not be well received by the mayor’s office. I knew that there could be serious consequences,” he said, in reference to Breed’s public responses to the incident, which he defines as personal attacks.

Carter-Obserstone said he felt an “overwhelming sense” that this letter, which he said he did not write himself, was a requirement to continue onto his second term as commissioner. He alleged that staff pressured him to sign the letter days before Breed was due to submit his nomination.

“The fact that everybody knows that this resignation letter is just floating in the ether, that it can be accepted at any moment with no notice, immediately terminating your tenure on the commission, is a consideration that’s at the forefront of… my mind,” he said.

The oversight committee issued a letter to every commissioner in response to Carter-Oberstone’s initial call-out, and has since learned that the mayor’s office sent similar requests to 48 out of over 300 commissioners.

Sean Elsbernd, the mayor’s chief of staff, said Breed requested these letters in case of ethical crises or wrongdoings within government, and cited the 2013 incident of former port commissioner Mel Murphy refusing to resign after ethics charges.

“If someone went completely AWOL, we would want to have a have something available to remove the commissioner,” Elsbernd said.

He added that signing one was not a requirement to be appointed, and confirmed that Breed only requested letters from some nominees but not others.

“The mayor clearly had a subjective standard here. Sometimes she directed it, sometimes she did not,” Elsbernd said, adding that he could not speak to the mayor’s thought process.

The resignation letters did not explicitly list out their purpose, as the mayor’s office could “not be able to predict why such a letter might be potentially used,” he said. “Its intended use was “never” in cases of policy disagreement.

Preston asked him his views on how taking a subjective approach can appear to be an abuse of power.

“I would not agree that it creates an opportunity for abuse, because knowing this mayor and why this was done, it was never going to be abused,” said Elsbernd. “That said, I would agree with you that it does create that perception that it could be.”

Though the city charter allows the mayor to appoint certain commissioners, these commissioners are protected from unilateral removal and work independently from the mayor. Preston alleges this policy raises concerns about “the level of control that the mayor has over commissioners.”

San Francisco Supervisor, Dean Preston, representing District 5, speaks with a commuter while riding a bus in San Francisco, Calif. on August 18, 2019. (Photo courtesy Office of Supervisor Dean Preston)

“The charter would provide that an official misconduct proceeding could be commenced against [a commissioner] to bring before the board the question of whether that person was removed from their position for that kind of abuse of power,” said Preston. “The only person in the city who is not subject to that form of removal is the mayor under the charter, and hence our discussion today. But I don’t think it makes it any less inappropriate, even if the remedies may differ.”

Supervisor Hillary Ronen stepped in for committee member Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who said he was unable to attend Tuesday’s meeting. She said commissions lose their purpose as independent, unbiased entities if they are receiving unilateral pressure.
“Politicization of commissioners is defeating the entire purpose of these independent bodies,” Ronen said.

Supervisor Connie Chan said it’s important to consider how the city is governing various bodies, and it’s important to protect commissioners’ independence from the mayor and preserve overall integrity.

“Every elected official’s job should be thinking about serving our city and working in the best interests of our city. not based on loyalty,” Chan said.

Preston extended the hearing to an unknown date as he waits for hundreds of appointed commissioners to respond to his inquiries about signing a resignation letter.

“As an oversight committee, we are committed to transparency of our government and compliance with the laws of the city, including the city’s charter,” Preston said.