Why did Mayor Ed Lee and seven supervisors put Mel Murphy in charge of San Francisco’s waterfront? The problem is not just one bad apple but a rotting tree: the politically juiced Port Commission populated entirely by mayoral appointees, some of whose chief qualification appears to be their campaign contributions and political connections to the mayors who nominated them and the supervisors who approved them.
Murphy, who gave $23,050 in political contributions to the campaign committees backing Lee and most of the supervisors who approved his appointment, has now become the symbol of a broken Port Commission that must be fixed before more damage is done to our waterfront and public trust.
When Lee nominated Murphy in March 2013 to fill one of the five seats on the powerful Port Commission, it was a startling choice. Not only did Murphy have zero maritime, recreation or environmental background and no other relevant experience, but he had already been caught red-handed violating city building laws and election rules. Supervisor John Avalos, one of the four supervisors who voted against confirming Murphy, said then, “We need people who are going to follow the rules and follow the letter of the law. I do not believe Mel Murphy has done that.”
And that was before Murphy’s illegally propped-up house came crashing down a Twin Peaks hillside, leading to a lengthy investigation and lawsuit by the city attorney that has exposed Murphy as a serial violator of the law and the public trust. Embarassingly, as of today, Murphy still sits on the Port Commission.
But the bigger issue is this: Why was Murphy appointed in the first place and how can we keep our waterfront from ever being Mel Murphyed again? In June, the civil grand jury documented in great detail what troubles the Port in its report, “Port of San Francisco: Caught Between Public Trust and Private Dollars.” The grand jury conducted a six-month examination into the deeply rooted problems that led to a Port Commission so out-of-touch that it unanimously approved the 8 Washington St. luxury high-rises (that was rejected by 67 percent of voters), the America’s Cup fiasco (that cost The City and Port millions instead of bringing in a promised $1.4 billion), and the Warriors arena at Piers 30-32 and condo towers (that were abandoned for lack of public support).
The grand jury’s No. 1 recommendation was to reform the Port Commission and cut the cord that has allowed the Mayor’s Office and development interests to have “strongly influenced” every major land use and real estate decision affecting the waterfront. It recommended a ballot measure be put before voters and our state legislators sponsor enabling legislation to balance the appointment of Port Commissioners between the supervisors and the mayor. In a response letter from Lee, the grand jury’s chief recommendation was deemed “unnecessary and there appears to be no perceivable benefit” and it was summarily dismissed.
The only way to ensure we don’t get Mel Murphyed again is to replace a body that was designed to oversee a shipping-focused Port that no longer exists with a 21st Century Waterfront Protection Commission, whose mission is the stewardship of a precious asset to keep it vibrant and open to all. Not only should we reformulate the Port Commission, but we should also crack down on Murphy-style cronyism by prohibiting all city commissioners from fundraising or donating money to the campaigns of the people who appoint them, just as we already do with our city Ethics and Elections commissions.
Right before he voted to approve Murphy’s appointment, Supervisor Mark Farrell — who received $500 from Murphy for his re-election campaign a few months later — said, “I understand there have been some past issues but, as was pointed out, none of us is perfect. I think we are lucky to have Mr. Murphy serve in our city.” If Mel Murphy’s sliding house leads San Francisco to finally fix its broken Port Commission, prevent a wall of high-rises from blocking the Bay, and protect our waterfront for future generations to enjoy, perhaps we will be lucky after all.
Jon Golinger is an environmental attorney who lives in North Beach.