San Francisco Budget Crisis Ripe For Mediation

Written by FCJ Editor. Posted in Opinion, Politics

Published on February 09, 2009 with 3 Comments

Commentary by Patrick Goggin

February 9, 2009

When Supervisor Bevan Dufty last week called for locking in a room Board leadership, unions, and the business community until they come up with a solution to the City’s unprecedented $576 million budget crisis, he left out two critical components essential for a successful resolution to the current mess: the Mayor and effective mediation.

In the legal world, mediation is increasingly used to break litigation gridlock – it serves the dual purpose of ending conflict and cutting costs. Briefly observing the dysfunctional relationship between Mayor Gavin Newsom and the Board through the lens of legal conflict might assist us in getting out of this budget quagmire.

On one hand, the Mayor and his Board allies’ votes to sustain three mayoral vetoes demonstrates a willingness to fight at all costs.  On the other, Supervisor Chris Daly’s straight talk displays a readiness to match the vetoes in kind. Essentially, we have a pitched battle between the ideologically-opposed parties responsible for addressing the economic meltdown resulting in a potential  impasse that can only make matters worse.

In complex litigation, special masters or mediators are often chosen by parties to help steer acrimonious legal conflict to a negotiated resolution. Recent activities by relevant City Hall parties indicate neutral assistance is needed to maneuver through the challenging path to a budget agreement. Special masters provide an effective tool to help produce an acceptable solution with mutually agreeable compromises from all sides.

During international crises, special envoys have historically been tasked with mediating the negotiation of complex solutions to volatile and equally complex conflicts. President Barack Obama’s recent dispatches of special envoys to Afghanistan/Pakistan and the Middle East were done with the knowledge that effective special envoys can foster an environment of progress.

The historic 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt were only reached after 13 days of exhausting negotiations led by President Jimmy Carter who served as the ultimate envoy. Carter’s use of shuttle diplomacy – a commonly used mediation technique where parties are separated while the mediator shuttles between rooms enabling candid dialogue – and sheer will,  overcame Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin not speaking to one another ten days into the negotiations.

While the City’s current budget crisis may not be of Middle East conflict proportions, it certainly is a crisis worthy of special mediation. To get to mediation, however, the parties must enter into the mediation voluntarily – they must want to participate and be willing to strike a compromise to end the stalemate the parties find themselves in. Board President David Chiu, a seasoned attorney and one who recognizes the importance of stakeholder buy-in, should propose employing a special mediator to help solutions rise from the current budgetary deficit abyss.

Indeed, the City needs a special mediator with the necessary experience, people skills, and tenacity to get the likes of Mayor Newsom and Supervisor Daly to the table ready to accept a compromise in order to achieve an agreement.


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  1. I don’t think that anyone should be compromising with Gavin Newsom. His outlook is so out of touch with reality that even meeting him halfway would be unconscionable. The Board shouldn’t be negotiating with terrorists.

    Besides, Newsom, who represents San Francisco, is an Imperial Mayor of the same economic-ideological fold as Bush. He is emotionally incapable of listening to reason and has no interest in compromising his Alan Greenspanesque doctrinaire positions with the Board. Some marriage counselor can hardly help someone like him.

  2. Uh, we elect people to bring our politics to the table and sort things out. When the author is suggesting is that an unelected third party be substituted for the will of the electorate as expressed through our representatives.

    This approach presumes that there is a gold standard, ideal academically provable “correct” answer to these political differences that a benevolent wise person (probably a man) will visit upon us so long as we forfeit our power.

    The problem here is that Gavin Newsom has always been a marginal leader when it comes to getting things done and bringing people together to resolve complex issues. That is what the role of the executive is.

    As Newsom glided to a second term, the political terrain changed itself out from under him. At this point, the last thing that San Francisco needs is someone who was already marginally competent at his job and who is clearly focused on not just greener pastures, but attacking San Francisco as a way to move up.

    Unless Newsom can adapt his style and approach to correspond to the changing economic realities–the Board has managed to do this, Newsom is avoiding dealing with a problem that’s arisen on his watch–then he is rendering himself irrelevent except for the occasional veto with Dufty bringing him to four.

    I know that it takes two to lie, one to lie and one to listen, but at some point, we’ve got to call Newsom on his Reaganesque detachment from the difficult parts of governing and hold him accountable.

    Mediation is a substitute for accountability and might work with a few parties to litigation after operating under formal legal constraints proves fruitless. But it is not okay for someone to run for Mayor and then a year and a half later, off load that responsibility onto a mediator.


  3. “Compromise makes a good umbrella, but a poor roof; it is temporary expedient, often wise in party politics, almost sure to be unwise in statesmanship.”

    — James Russell Lowell